After California’s stringent term limits were enacted in 1990, the legislative power equation in Sacramento shifted noticeably. For nearly a quarter of a century, clout has been concentrated in the offices of the Senate President pro Tempore and the Speaker of the Assembly. Individual members have been generally expected to toe the line. However, this year’s legislative session may be a sign that the concentration of power has been diluted somewhat and that the voices of individual legislators may be becoming relevant again.
Since former Speakers Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown laid out the ground rules, contributions from business, labor, trial lawyers, medical groups and Indian gaming tribes have largely flowed into leadership campaign funds that are doled out by Senate and Assembly leaders, who have also steered interest groups to support their favored candidates. Candidates seeking first-term seats, nervous incumbents up for reelection and legislators looking to jump to another office have always needed to play nice with the legislative leaders, who also controlled committee assignments, staff and office space. The 1990 term limits law created a game of political musical chairs, where officeholders constantly jumped from one office to another—an expensive proposition, escalating the demands of many lawmakers hungry for the political money controlled by the legislative leaders.