The case for term limits and legislative reform

In a state with a $1.6 trillion dollar economy and 37 million of some of the most creative, innovative and talented people in the world, Californians deserve a Legislature that is given an opportunity to truly grasp the complex issues and challenges that lie ahead.

That’s why I support a bipartisan measure, the Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act, to improve the state’s term-limit laws and stop the cycle of losing our most state’s most effective and knowledgeable legislators.

Although the initial term-limits proposal, Proposition 140, was well-intentioned, it has failed to achieve its goal of eliminating career politicians–instead, legislators frequently calculate their next career move before they can master the job they were elected to do.

The Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act changes that dynamic by reducing the total time a member can serve in the California Legislature from 14 to 12 years while allowing members to gain more experience in one body of the Legislature.

This reform would work to reduce partisanship, put an end to the constant campaign cycle and empower legislators to work more effectively together across partisan lines. It also provides greater stability and expertise to the Legislature’s policymaking process.

Recent statewide public-opinion research reveals that 65 percent of Californians believe that permitting legislators “to spend their time in one legislative body would permit them to focus on doing their jobs instead of running for the next higher office.”

Since 1990, when Proposition 140 took effect, there have been nine speakers of the state Assembly. With the leadership turning over nearly every two years, how could our state possibly tackle long-range issues and substantive problems?
Under the current system, most legislative leaders simply aren’t given the time to develop important relationships with the governor and other elected officials so they can move through bureaucratic red tape and get things done.

The National Conference of State Legislatures recently published a series of reports on the effects of term limits in various states across the country, and the anecdotal evidence very clearly demonstrates that a vacuum of experience is being created in those states with severe term limits laws.

Political scientist Bruce Cain, who wrote the term limits report for the Public Policy Institute of California and is supportive of this initiative, said that one of the most important findings in the report is that there is a “pressing need to hold the executive branch accountable, particularly in the budget process, to ensure that taxpayer money isn’t being wasted.”

He argues that amending term limits to give legislators the framework to develop expertise will be an important step toward making state agencies, and the executive branch as a whole, more accountable.

Some critics claim the measure is self-serving for current legislators by extending their time in office, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the “transition period” proposed under this initiative is much more stringent for incumbents than what was included in the voter-approved Proposition 140, the initial term-limits reform measure.

Prior to the enactment of that measure, no limit existed on the amount of time that could be served. Thus, the new limit was applied only on a “going forward” basis, allowing legislators to serve up to an additional 14 years.

This initiative requires legislators to count the time they already have served in their house of the Legislature in the new 12-year limit. To be fair to voters and their representatives, the measure also allows legislators to finish out their 12-year terms in whichever body they are elected to.

The Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act is the best and most viable alternative to the current system, and by putting it on the ballot for California’s voters to decide, the power is headed back where it belongs: in the hands of the people.

In any other profession, experience is valued. We need to place a premium on that commodity in our elected leaders, as well, so that we don’t ultimately shortchange the people those leaders are supposed to represent.
A knowledgeable Legislature also would provide them with comparable experience to those who seek to influence their decisions.

The time to reform term limits is now. Voters understand that our state needs experienced individuals to tackle our state’s complex needs and problems. And this measure has the best chance of passing in an era of bipartisanship where the governor and the Legislature are working across party lines to get things done for the people of our state.

The Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act is exactly the kind of pragmatic and thoughtful change our system needs to better serve California voters.

Bill Hauck is president of the California Business Roundtable and former chairman of the California Constitution Revision Commission.

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