Unions can't change public's mind about seniority

In the 17-plus years since voters approved legislative term limits, has the constant flow of new faces at the Capitol reinvigorated the Legislature with fresh ideas and energy? Or has the legislative branch been diminished by the loss of experience and the constant churning of lawmakers who feel they have to focus more time on raising money and campaigning for their next offices?

It's a debate that's been quietly waged for years among academics and political insiders. But it's been strangely absent from the Proposition 93 campaign, even as voters are being asked to consider changing term limits.

Instead, the proponents of Proposition 93 — many of whom dislike the idea of term limits — have stressed that the measure shortens the total possible time a lawmakercould spend in office, almost making it sound as if it strengthens the current law.

And the opponents? They have turned it into a referendum on Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, by focusing on the provision that allows them and other current lawmakers to remain in office.

"A debate on term limits would have been very enlightening for the general public, but proponents figured they can't change the public's mind about term limits," said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "And opponents felt they didn't really need to engage the merits of the issue."

For good reason. Over the years,
two-thirds of the public has consistently backed the concept of limiting the time lawmakers serve in office.

That's put the proponents in an awkward box. They acknowledge that Proposition 93 would give many lawmakers, especially Assembly members, more time in office because it would enable them to spend all 12 years in one chamber.

That's a good thing, they argue, because lawmakers need more time in office to be effective. But that pitch, at least to voters, has been more implicit than stated.

The No on 93 campaign has been more blunt. They've attacked the measure by blasting Nunez and Perata for what they call sleazy conduct — Nunez for buying lavish gifts and taking expensive trips, and Perata for being investigated by the FBI for corruption allegations.

The more subtle message to voters is to remind them why they supported term limits in the first place: It ejects lawmakers before they get too corruptible, before they are overly influenced by lobbyists and special interests.

Such subtleties have been swallowed up in the multimillion-dollar ad war over Proposition 93, leaving voters with 30-second spots that emphasize simple ideas, one-liners and sound bites rather than a sincere discussion of the merits of term limits.

Political scientists say that's unfortunate, because both sides have compelling points to make.

Why term limits work

Lew Uhler, the president of the National Tax Limitations Committee who helped write the 1990 ballot measure, believes lawmakers start cutting corners and cashing in on relationships with lobbyists and interest groups after six to eight years in office.

"It takes that amount of time for the lobbyists to establish relationships," Uhler said. "That's when lobbyists begin to have more influence."

Lobbyists and special-interest groups have poured $14 million into the Yes on 93 campaign, proof enough, said Kevin Spillane, spokesman for the No on 93 campaign, that term limits are effective in thwarting powerful influence groups.

"Lobbyists don't like term limits," Spillane said. "It prevents them from building long-term relationships with legislators. New legislators instinctively are suspicious of lobbyists, so they keep their distance."

Term limits, supporters say, also have eliminated the stranglehold of power by the few: The law was specifically aimed at ridding the Capitol of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the self-proclaimed Ayatollah of the Legislature. It also broke the system that rewarded lawmakers who'd amassed power through seniority, who established their own mini-fiefdoms as committee chairs or leaders and were often seen as trading influence with high-powered lobbyists and special-interest groups.

The churn caused by term limits also hastened a more diverse body. Women, African Americans and Latinos have become more prominent, particularly in the Democratic caucuses: 40 of the current 72 Democratic lawmakers — 56 percent — are either African-American, Latino or Asian. Women comprise 37 percent of the two Democratic caucuses. Before 1990, women and minorities were far less represented.

Why term limits fail

The lack of experience has been at the heart of critics' arguments against term limits for years.

An exhaustive 2004 study on term limits by academics Bruce Cain and Thad Kousser found that lawmakers' oversight of the executive branch has declined, the Legislature is less likely to make substantial changes to the governor's budget, and that frequent turnover — especially in the Assembly, where typically one-third of the membership are freshmen every two years — has sharply reduced members' expertise on issues.

Critics also say lawmakers are continuously jockeying for leadership posts, committee chairs and, ultimately, the next political seat to run for — which, along with raising campaign cash, distracts them from their job of working on complex issues that face the Legislature.

"No matter how smart, capable and talented they are," said Tim Hodson, executive director for the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, "it means one-third of legislators are always at the bottom of the learning curve."

Former lawmaker Liz Figueroa, who served parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties before being termed out in 2007, remembers when she was at the bottom of the learning curve.

In 1996, she was one of 31 Assembly freshmen to vote to deregulate the electrical industry — a decision that would haunt California as the state succumbed to the electricity crisis of 2000-2001 marked by rolling blackouts, price spikes and the bankruptcy of PG&E.

"I can tell you that's one of the issues I wish I could have had more first-hand knowledge about," said Figueroa, who now serves on the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. "This was a prime example of why you need experienced people in the Legislature."

But deregulation might also be the best example of what both sides fear: The bill was approved in large part by inexperienced lawmakers, but it was pushed by entrenched lawmakers who had not yet been termed out — lawmakers who wielded considerable influence and had deep ties to big-monied special interests.


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