Voters To Be Presented With Term-Limit Compromise

Staff Reporter

Ever since California voters enacted term-limits in 1990, there have been periodic attempts to modify them, to no avail. Now, a coalition of elected officials and business, labor and civic leaders is trying again, with a measure on the March 5 primary ballot allowing state legislators to seek another four years in office.

Under Proposition 45, 20 percent of the number of voters who voted in the last election would be required to sign petitions that allow the legislator to run for another term. State senators can use this process once; assemblymembers can seek two more two-year terms.

Under the 1990 law, state Assemblymembers are limited to three two-year terms; state Senators can serve only two four-year terms. And once a legislator serves in a particular house of the Legislature, they can't return to that house. Thus they can only serve a total of 14 years in the Legislature.

The March 5 ballot measure would extend that by four years in each house, for a total of 22 years.

Proponents argue that Proposition 45 leaves the decision on whether a legislator can extend their terms to the voters. They say such flexibility is needed to counter the harmful effects of rapid turnover of legislators.

"This is an issue of voter choice," said Karen Caves, spokeswoman for the Yes on 45 campaign. "This initiative asks whether voters should have the right to say 'yea' or 'nay' to a legislator's intent to seek an additional term."

Scuttling term limits

But opponents say it's merely a back-door attempt to circumvent the intent of term limits and is the first step towards overturning term limits altogether.

"This is a blatant attempt by politicians to hold onto power," said Stacie Rumenap, spokeswoman for U.S. Term Limits, a nationwide group that backs strict term limits on elected officials.

Popularized a decade ago amid growing voter backlash over so-called professional legislators, term limits has become a standing feature in many state and local governments. But there has been some concern about the revolving door nature of the process. And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, polls showed that people now want more experienced hands at the helm of government. Just two weeks ago, Idaho became the first state in the nation in recent times to overturn a term limits law.

What's more, proponents have raised nearly $6 million including $3 million from the state Democratic Party to bolster their cause. Opponents haven't reported raising enough money to meet the $50,000 threshold necessary for campaign filings.

But Proposition 45 faces significant hurdles. It generally trails in the polls: a mid-January survey from the Public Policy Institute of California showed it losing by a 61-31 margin. Last week's Field Poll had more mixed results (52 percent favored it when the measure was read without mentioning its fiscal impact; only 40 percent supported it after fiscal impact was mentioned.)

That same Field Poll also showed nearly two-thirds of registered voters favor term limits a figure unchanged over the last five years.

"Term limits are still very popular here in California, and that's a steep obstacle to overcome," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC. "The only way they can do this is to convince voters that this really isn't diminishing term limits."

Gathering signatures

That's what proponents are hoping to do by requiring legislators to gather petition signatures before being allowed on the ballot. Simply lengthening term limits, proponents point out, would have less chance of passage.

Supporters also argue that the short term-limits in the Legislature, especially in the Assembly, deprive the state of experienced leaders.

"We have the most severe term limit law in the nation," said Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, which consists of top-level executives of major California and national corporations. "Members of the Legislature are asked to make multibillion dollar decisions for the fifth largest economy in the world, often with only a year or two experience. We need legislators who are informed, can put complex issues into context, and have experience with the legislative process."

Opponents counter that term limits have diversified the state Legislature, bringing more businesspeople into a body that used to consist primarily of lawyers and former legislative staffers. They also say that, when combined with the recently redistricted legislative seats, extending term limits will allow more extreme candidates to get in and stay in office. Such legislators are less friendly to business, they say.

"With this redistricting process creating safe seats in most legislative districts, you are likely to see more liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans winning elections. Now this proposition would allow those extreme folks to stay in office longer," said Dan Schnur, spokesman for the No on 45 campaign. "Historically, business groups have realized the most legislative success in Sacramento when the moderates of both parties are in control."

Proposition 45

The March 5 ballot measure includes several rules for legislators who seek an extension of their time in Sacramento.

- 20 percent of the number who voted in the last election would be required to sign petitions allowing a legislator to run for another term after his original limit is up.

- Legislators would be limited to a total of 22 years if they served in both houses.

- State senators can run for only one more four-year term after serving their original limit; assembly members can seek two more two-year terms.

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