When Prop. 140, the original term limits initiative, passed in 1990, supporters vowed that it would create more competitive elections, banish career politicians from Sacramento and “remove the grip that vested interests have on the Legislature.”
How’s that worked out so far?
Prop. 28 on Tuesday’s ballot makes some commonsense changes to the 22-year-old term limits law. While it trims the amount of time politicians can spend in the Legislature to 12 years, it allows them to spend all that time in either the Assembly or the state Senate.
The only problem is that the initiative doesn’t go nearly far enough. If Californians want a Legislature that has even a prayer of dealing with the state’s growing problems, that ceiling for time served should be lengthened, not shortened.
Better yet, voters should recognize that term limits have been, at the absolute best, a mixed blessing and dump those rules for the good of the state.
Now that’s not going to happen. Every effort to eliminate or even modify the term limit rules has been quashed by the voters. A May survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 62 percent of likely voters, including a majority of Democrats, think term limits have been a good thing for California.
Four years ago, supporters of Prop. 93, a similar effort to modify the term limit rules, based their campaign on the good government model, which is always a risky proposition.
Allowing officeholders to spend more time in a single house of the Legislature would help Sacramento run more efficiently, they said.
Prop. 93 “strikes a reasonable balance between the need to elect new people and the need for experienced legislators with the knowledge and experience to solve the complex problems facing the state.”
That’s thoughtful, logical reasoning. Which could be why Prop. 93 lost, 47 percent to 53 percent.
So this time thoughtfulness is out the window. Prop. 28 now is all about closing loopholes in that wonderful term limits law and making sure those sneaky politicians can’t find a way to serve any more than 12 years.
Since many of the same people backing Prop. 28 are the same folks who supported Prop. 93 in 2008, this serves as another example of an important political axiom: “Whatever works.”
But term limits haven’t bought a political Golden Age to California, where, Cincinnatus-like, citizen-legislators leave their farms, go briefly to Sacramento to do the people’s business and then return gratefully to the plow, never to concern themselves with politics again.
Term limit laws try to take the politics out of politics, an effort doomed to failure. It’s the nature of the beast for politicians to run for office; if they’re termed out of one job, they’ll seek another. It’s no surprise that Willie Brown was mayor of San Francisco, Tony Villaraigosa mayor of Los Angeles, Bill Lockyer state treasurer or that Abel Maldonado is running for Congress.
But more than anything else, term limit laws show a total lack of faith in both the political system and the voters who drive it.
Back in 1990, Prop. 140 wasn’t some high-minded effort to improve government in California. Rather, it was a sour grapes ploy by Republicans anxious to bounce Democratic leaders like then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who to their dismay just kept getting re-elected by the voters in his district.
Since Republicans couldn’t trust San Francisco voters to oust Brown, they decided to put together a state law to do it for them, figuring that just because voters want to keep someone in office doesn’t mean it should happen.
Every political job has always come with term limits and not with a 12- or 14-year ceiling, either. If people decide – or can be convinced – that an elected official isn’t doing his job, that time in office can end abruptly. And if someone can show voters that he’s doing his job well enough to be returned to Sacramento every two or four years, what’s wrong with letting the people decide?
Sure, term limits has brought new people to the Legislature, including an increasing number of women and minorities. But most of them still come from the world of local office holders, government appointees and labor. And most of them will be staying in that political universe regardless of when they leave Sacramento.
And the cost? The Legislature is now in perpetual motion, with officeholders moving out for the next job just when they start to learn their business. There’s never the time to establish those long-term relationships of trust with members across the aisle that can open the way to honest discussions about issues and fair compromises that move beyond the current mantra of “Just Say No.”
So vote for Prop. 28 on Tuesday, since it’s a start toward repairing a dysfunctional Legislature. But remember, it’s just a start.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.