Coming to Terms
Prop. 93 would reduce total years in office – except for some lame ducks.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Once again pitting himself against Republican lawmakers in Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week endorsed term-limits measure Proposition 93.
“The current system of term limits,” Schwarzenegger wrote in an opinion piece in the Jan. 15 Los Angeles Times, “is contributing to Sacramento’s problems rather than fixing them.
“It takes time to learn how to govern effectively. Under the current system, our elected officials are not given the time they need to reach their full potential as public servants. Just as they get seasoned in one house, they know their time is beginning to run out, and they must start positioning themselves to run for a new office.”
Schwarzenegger’s endorsement puts him in opposition to the state Republican Party, most GOP legislators and California’s only other statewide Republican elected official, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who has pumped some $1.5 million of his own money into the No on Prop. 93 campaign. The move aligns the governor with a host of former and current Democratic leaders – former Assembly and Senate leaders Willie Brown and John Burton, and current Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata – who say term-limit reform is the only way to fix California’s “dysfunctional” Legislature.
Prop. 93 would reduce the total amount of time a lawmaker may serve in the state Legislature, from 14 years to 12 years. But it would allow lawmakers to serve all 12 years in the Senate, or the Assembly, or a combination of both chambers. (Currently, lawmakers are limited to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.)
Central Coast Assemblyman John Laird, a Democratic leader in Sacramento who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, says a yes vote on Prop. 93 is common sense.
“This is a common-sense reform that’s one of four or five we absolutely need to make for state government to be functional again,” Laird says.
Locally, Laird’s opinion is split along party lines. Freshman Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) supports Prop. 93. “Term limits mean that you have a very short period of time to get things done – in the Assembly case it’s six years,” Caballero says. “It’s like a revolving door. The people who stick around the longest is the staff.
“The current limit of six years for an Assembly member is really short given the complexity of issues and given the need to do big reform. The fact we’re in three extraordinary sessions right now – health care, water and the budget – will tell you why it’s important to have somebody who understands the need to reach compromises for the entire state. In a state as important and powerful as the state of California, we need people that have the information, the experience, and the ability to craft complicated solutions instead of playing around the edges of some of the problems.”
But Monterey County’s two Republican state Senators say vote no.
Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who represents the Peninsula, opposes the term-limit initiative, as does his Salinas Valley counterpart, Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Merced).
“I oppose Proposition 93,” Denham wrote in a statement emailed to the Weekly. “This measure rewards other politicians for not getting their work done and for passing unbalanced budgets. I believe Californians spoke when they set term limits in 1990. I will continue to support these term limits, until the people pass a new initiative.”
Term limits are among those political words (including “career politicians,” “bipartisan solution,” “health-care reform,” “budget reform,” or really any “reform,” and, more recently, “change”) intended to evoke some visceral response. And, like all of the aforementioned buzzwords, the definition depends on who’s talking.
Such is the case with Prop. 93, which is on the Feb. 5 ballot. Supporters say it sets stricter term limits for California. This is true.
Opponents say it actually gives some current lawmakers several more years in office. This is also true.
Prop. 93 is a boon to incumbents, allowing sitting senators to run for one extra term, and sitting Assembly members to run for an additional three. So if Prop. 93 passes, some 42 lawmakers who would have been term-limited out at the end of the year will be able to run for reelection.
This means both Núñez and Perata, who otherwise would be out of office at the end of this year, likely would keep their posts for six and four more years, respectively. If approved, Prop. 93 also virtually guarantees Laird, who would be out in 2009, another six years in office.
“The people of California have been pretty clear that they’re in favor of term limits and how they are set up,” says Republican political consultant Brian Higgins, who owns Red Ladder Consulting. “It’s good to have rotation. This proposition is just a way to keep some people in office who are about to term out.”
Lawmakers, however, insist that Prop. 93 isn’t an attempt to hang on to their seats.
“The strictness of the current term-limit system… doesn’t allow us to have the best kind of participatory responsive government we could have in California,” Laird says. “It just happens that some of us are there in the middle of this debate.”
Laird and others argue that the current term-limit laws don’t give legislators enough time in office to address long-term solutions to California’s big problems, like water, health care, and the state budget.
“The day after I was sworn in in 2002, the governor announced a $38 billion deficit,” Laird says. “We have slowly but surely been whittling it down, but unless we fix the volatility of revenues in the state budget, this will happen every four or five years in perpetuity. I think it’s gonna take people with relationships with each other and a little institutional memory and strength to make the precise reforms to keep it from happening again.”
And, say Prop. 93 backers, the current system has surrendered too much power to lobbyists and special interest groups who aren’t limited to 14 years in Sacramento.
“There are two groups that have much more power,” Laird says. “Lobbyists, who can do their job for 25 or 30 years and believe they can wait out any legislator because of their short duration in office, and staff members, in the state bureaucracy and at the legislative level, who will also work for 25, 30 years. It’s only with the ability to have someone stay 12 years in either house that we can protect what people want about term limits and institutionalize that strength.”
If voters approve Prop. 93, Laird immediately will begin campaigning for reelection. His 27th Assembly District seat will appear on the June 3 ballot. If voters reject the term-limits measure, then Laird will be termed out of office, and a host of local Democrats already have thrown their names into the contest. In Monterey, there’s longtime political player Bill Monning, chiropractor Stephen Barkalow and Pacific Grove real estate loan officer Gary Smith. In Santa Cruz County, Mayor Emily Reilly and Felton water activist Barbara Sprenger want the post. But all five say they’ll bow out and support Laird if Prop. 93 passes.