THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (California)
Sacramento, CA — State lawmakers would be able to stay in office longer under a proposed ballot initiative announced Thursday by two political consultants who have been working with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez to relax the legislative term limits voters approved in 1990.
The proposal, which supporters want to qualify for a vote during a February 2008 presidential primary, would allow lawmakers to serve six two-year terms in the Assembly or three four-year terms in the Senate, or a combination capped at 12 years of service. Under the current system, lawmakers can serve a total of 14 years, but are limited to three Assembly terms and two Senate terms.
Gale Kaufman, Núñez’s top political consultant, and Matthew Dowd, a former campaign adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, are spearheading the campaign to place the initiative on the ballot and said they expect support from a broad coalition of interests.
Kaufman said voters would be more receptive to a term-limits initiative than a proposal placed on the ballot by lawmakers who would benefit from its passage.
She estimated that 1.1 million signatures would need to be collected by the end of July to qualify for the February ballot. Paying signature gatherers to do that could cost as much as $2.5 million, she said.
For the ballot measure to help incumbents like Núñez, D-Los Angeles, and state Sen. Carol Migden, D-San Francisco, stay in office longer, it would need to be approved by voters before June 2008, when legislative primary elections are held.
The effort to change term limits already appears to have attracted some powerful political allies.
“We support term-limits reform and we support this initiative. The whole point is to bring stability to the Legislature,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. “The public can support this if there is a united voice behind it. But if there’s dissension among the policymakers, voters are going to question that.”
Schwarzenegger and lawmakers want to move California’s 2008 presidential primary to the first Tuesday in February. If the proposed ballot measure is approved in that election, sitting lawmakers would be allowed to remain in office for the difference between time already served in the Legislature and the new 12-year limit. Migden, for example, could stay until 2016 instead of 2012. Núñez could stay until 2014 rather than leaving in 2008.
The proposal would not affect the terms of the governor or other statewide elected officials.
California has yet to move the presidential primary. A bill to do so passed the Senate this week and is pending in the Assembly, but the early primary has its critics.
“The logical thing would be to put the presidential primary and the legislative primaries together as we did in the past when we moved up the primary,” said Carmen Balber, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “The reason the two are split is simple — incumbent politicians want to extend the term of their office.”
Schwarzenegger has said he would entertain a term-limits relaxation if it led to lawmakers stripping themselves of the power to draw their district boundaries.
Núñez said he would commit some of the estimated $7 million in his campaign coffers to back the initiative.
State Sen. President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, who like Núñez opposes term limits, said lawmakers should accompany the initiative with changes to decrease the influence of special interests on lawmakers.
“It’s not just about how long we serve, but how well we serve,” Perata said in a statement.
Backers of the initiative will have a tough sell with voters, a large majority of whom favor the idea of term limits. Reducing the overall length of time legislators can serve at the Capitol could resonate with voters.
“This has a certain amount of appeal that previous term-limit revisions did not because it decreases the number of years people can serve in Sacramento, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
The most recent effort to relax term limits was Prop. 45, placed by lawmakers on the March 2002 ballot. It would have allowed voters to submit petitions to permit their incumbent lawmaker to run for re-lection and serve a maximum of four additional years. It lost, with nearly 58 percent of voters rejecting it.
“There’s no evidence that the current arrangement is anything but satisfactory except to those directly affected — the elected guys and the lobbyists who would like to get a longer-term grip on a legislator,” said Lew Uhler, one of the co-authors of Proposition 140, the 1990 initiative that first imposed term limits on state lawmakers.
Term limits have caused widespread turnover in the Legislature, ending the careers of lawmakers who had been in office in some cases more than 20 years. Doing so has helped bring more diversity to the Legislature’s membership but it has also created turmoil.
Critics argue that lack of legislative experience and institutional wisdom has made lobbyists and staff members more powerful and reduced the checks and balances lawmakers place on the executive branch.