Prop 28 and the mixed bag of term limits in California

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On June 5, voters will get a chance to tweak California’s term limits law.

Prop 28 would reduce the total time a lawmaker can stay in Sacramento from 14 to 12 years, but it lets lawmakers serve all that time in either the Senate or the Assembly. The measure has reignited the debate about whether term limits that voters passed in 1990 are working in California.

The state’s term limits law, Prop 140, forces state lawmakers out of office after a specified time. They could stay in the Assembly for six years and the Senate for eight, and then they were done for life.

“We had no chance of getting rid of bad legislators other than through term limits,” says Bob Stern, a longtime Sacramento watcher and government scholar who used to work in the legislature.

Thirty years ago, Stern was working as a a staff attorney for the Assembly Elections Committee.

“When I was in Sacramento, I saw legislators who were terrific, who were experienced, who should’ve been there for a long time...” Stern says. “I also saw legislators there who really needed to leave.”

Stern says term limits cleared out the "dead wood" and shored up the state legislature with younger, sturdier timber.

Rosalind Gold with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials says term limits also brought in a more diverse group of lawmakers.

“Without term limits,” Gold says, “you would have had non-Latino incumbents really staying in the seats a long time, even after the demographics of the district had changed and there was growing Latino electoral power.”

But Gold says the term limits can also restrict opportunities once Latinos get into office. She says today’s lawmakers don’t get to develop a long-term relationship with a community. In the past, Gold says, that helped lawmakers understand constituents’ needs and create good long-term policies.

Former Democratic Senate leader Don Perata says another problem with term limits is that lawmakers have to start running for their next job right after they’ve been elected. Perata says that’s really changed the atmosphere at the Capitol.

“It’s like a Greyhound bus station,” says Perata. “Everybody’s coming in, everybody’s leaving. You’re getting off one bus and you’re looking for another bus to ride, which is the way that people come into the legislature particularly in the Assembly, to immediately think what moves they have because six years goes by very, very quickly.”

Diamond Bar Republican Bob Huff served four years in the Assembly before he jumped to the Senate. He’s now the Senate’s Republican leader.

Huff says he used to support term limits but “along the way, before I came up here, I decided we may have made a mistake on that because we do tend to 'dumb down' the institution.”

Huff believes the mistake is that term limits have shifted knowledge away from experienced lawmakers. Now longtime staffers and lobbyists, also known as "special interests," know more about policies than the Senators and Assembly members who vote on them.

Huff says some policy areas take years to understand. Public education in California is a good example.

“That is one of the most convoluted policy areas, one of the most important policy and fiscal areas and yet, there’s very few people that have a command of it. I certainly don’t. I understand more than average, but I don’t understand as much as I would like to know, and I’ll be termed out before I do.”

Government scholar Bob Stern agrees that term limits are a mixed bag. He says they haven’t created the “citizen lawmaker” who’d serve a term or two in Sacramento and then head home. The Center for Governmental Studies, Stern’s think tank that closed last year, looked at term limits and found that most of the lawmakers elected under them came from local government. They also sought another office after they termed out.

Stern found that people who are in public service like to stay in public service. “I mean, let’s give them some credit. They want to do something and so they want to stay in public service by either serving in the administration or serving as a city council member, or serving in statewide office. They also have ambition and that’s not a bad thing to have.”

Stern says it’s also not a bad thing to have term limits.

“You lose some experience,” Stern admits, “but you also gain some freshness and people coming in really wanting to do something right away, as opposed to sitting around and just letting things happen.”

Bob Stern says California could improve its term limits law by scrapping the lifetime ban. He says people should be allowed to run for the state legislature again after they spend a few years away from Sacramento.

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