Term limits tweak may be heading back to ballot

A new proposal to change the state’s legislative term limits law has been submitted to the Attorney General’s office, and could be on the ballot by November 2010.

The initiative is similar to a measure backed by former Speaker Fabian Nuñez and former Senate Leader Don Perata in 2008. That measure was also supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but was ultimately rejected by voters – 53 percent of whom voted against it.

But unlike the 2008 proposal, this measure does not seek to provide extra terms for those already in office. The measure states the intent is to prohibit “any current or former legislator from benefiting in any way from this reform.”

But if the measure passes, it would create a two-tiered system of rules until the new law is fully phased in. The new law would only “apply to those members of the Senate or the Assembly who are first elected to the legislature” after the new law goes into effect.
Current members of the Legislature “may only serve the number of terms allowed at the time that member … was last elected to office.”

For example, members who were elected to the Assembly in 2008 would still only be able to serve three two-year Assembly terms, and then be eligible to serve in the Senate for two four-year terms. But if this law passes, a member elected to the Assembly in 2012 would be able to serve six two-year terms in the Assembly.

The state’s term limits law has become a major focus of the debate over how to fix California’s broken governance system. While there is wide support among political experts to tweak the current term limits system – which was adopted by voters in 1990 – the current law also has staunch defenders.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, who has also endorsed the concept of a part-time Legislature, spent millions to defeat Proposition 93 in 2008. Poizner campaign spokesman Jarrod Agen says the insurance commissioner remains opposed to changes in the term-limits law.

Poizner railed against the new initiative, telling Capitol Weekly, “The problem with the California Legislature is not that we should allow career politicians to stay there longer, which is what this initiative would do, but instead we need to change the kind of person who gets elected to the Legislature in the first place.  I support the current term limits law and oppose any changes, as well as supporting a part-time Legislature to get more people with real world experiences in Sacramento.”

U.S. Term Limits president Philip Blumel blasted the term limits proposal in a letter last month addressed to the co-chairs of California Forward. California Forward has endorsed a proposal similar to the one submitted this week, though a spokesman for the group said they were not the ones who submitted this latest measure to the attorney general.

“This is unacceptable to U.S. Term Limits, its California members, and the people of California who have already voted on three separate occasions to maintain strict term limits on office holders,” Blumel wrote.

“Your proposal is particularly unfortunate because it is framed in such a way as to confuse the citizens of the state into believing that it reduces, rather than lengthens, a politician’s time in office … The amount of damage an entrenched politician can do in that length of time is immeasurable. Just look at the damage they are already doing in just six to eight years, having already bankrupted a once-solvent state.”
But proponents of the term limits change say it is the limits on terms that have helped drive the state into a deep fiscal morass, with inexperienced politicians now focused on their next election rather than effective governance.

“It’s clear we need term limits reform. We need it. Period,” said California Forward co-chairman Bob Hertzberg. “And voters are increasingly seeing the need for it. At California Forward we’re always looking for new partners to join us in bringing this type of reform before the voters. So we see this initiative filed as a step in the right direction.”

The term-limits change is just one of the government reform measures that may be headed to the ballot next year. Gov. Schwarzenegger has endorsed the concept of an open primary, which will be on the June ballot. Signatures are already being collected on a part-time legislature initiative. And labor groups are contemplating pushing changes to the legislative vote requirements to eliminate the current two-thirds requirements to pass new taxes and state budgets.

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