California's term limits for state lawmakers are the toughest in the nation. Politicians can serve six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. That's a maximum of 14 years a politician can serve in the state legislature; but the proponents of Proposition 93 want to change that. KPCC's Julie Small tells us why.
Julie Small: On the green carpeted floor of the State Assembly, Democrat Mike Feuer answers questions about his bill to ban Styrofoam and other non-recyclable takeout containers in restaurants and fast food joints
The assemblyman from West Hollywood introduced the bill last year. He eventually won over industry groups that opposed it.
The bill passes. Feuer is in his second year in the Assembly. He'll "term out" in 2013, just about the time he's up to speed.
Mike Feuer: Most big issues – infrastructure, education, transportation, health – cannot be resolved in a year, or even two years. And yet we have this turnover in place that escalates the importance of doing things quickly.
So you have more superficial solutions, and you see people choosing to focus on issues that are more easily resolved in a short time. That's the opposite of what we need in the state today.
Small: The only way Feuer can stay in the Legislature is to start over in the State Senate. Senators, who can serve only eight years, sometimes extend their political careers by switching to the Assembly. Governor Schwarzenegger says this game of musical chairs has weakened the Legislature.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: The special interests and the lobbyists, because they've been around Sacramento for so many more years than the legislators, they have more experience and they can represent their special interests better than the politicians can represent the people of California.
Small: The governor's backing Proposition 93. It would change term limits so lawmakers could serve 12 years in the same house. Tim Hodson welcomes the change. He runs the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento, and he says voters passed term limits to bring fresh blood to the State Capitol. But not everyone who's elected is fit for the job, like the novice assemblyman who knew his bill was doomed in the Senate.
Tim Hodson: This member went to the clerk and demanded that his legislation be sent to the governor directly and not sent to the Senate to be killed. And the clerk had to very patiently explain: It's a bicameral legislature, that if you pass a bill in the Assembly it doesn't mean it goes directly to the governor, it goes to the Senate. And then it goes to the governor.
Small: That's ignorance in the extreme, but Hodson says more subtle effects of term limits are equally disturbing. He says legislators don't have time to master policy.
Hodson: The traditional norms of, "Let me specialize in the budget, and I'll be on this budget committee for year after year after, or I'm going to look into natural resources." That's gone by the wayside.
Small: Staffers have taken up the slack. Morgan Crinklaw is with the Assembly Republican Caucus.
Morgan Crinklaw: They have the institutional knowledge all of the sudden. You don't have members who've been here for 20 years. You have staff who've been here for 20 years. And they can tell members that we tried that 10, 15 years ago, it didn't work, and here's why, or, you know, provide some of that knowledge.
Small: Crinklaw is in his fourth year. He's served three different leaders. He also trains new members on how the Assembly works, like how to introduce a bill. But Crinklaw says new members bring new expertise.
Crinklaw: It doesn't take very long for them to figure things out. A lot of them have come from local government, and a lot of them have come from places where they've had to speak to the press and do stuff like this before.
Small: Morgan Crinklaw says those new members keep the Assembly vibrant, and that's what term limit advocates say they want. Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner:
Steve Poizner: You don't want the mediocre folks to get locked into power as incumbents. That's why the voters decided to put term limits in place. Because once you get elected to office, it's practically impossible to pry you out of there. Term limits are important to cause a recycling or refreshing of talent, you know, every so often in Sacramento.
Small: Poizner says Prop 93 is a scam to benefit a few dozen incumbents who'd get to serve an extra term if they want to. That includes the two top Democrats: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Senate leader Don Perata. Cal State Sacramento's Tim Hodson's not too bothered about that.
Hodson: Reminds me of the line from Casablanca: "I'm shocked that there's politics involved. I'm just shocked about it."
Small: Perata's been in office for twelve years, Nunez for six. If they and other incumbents have figured out a way to stay in office longer, maybe you don't have to be in Sacramento very long to know how the place works.