Term limits leave California with legislative rookies to fix crisis

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The Associated Press

California’s strict term limits have left the state with an inexperienced Legislature trying to untangle the electricity crisis – a task that may be unprecedented in its magnitude and complexity.

Almost a quarter of the legislators struggling with the complex crisis are brand-new, and three-quarters weren’t in office when deregulation was hatched in 1996.

“I really believe that this energy debacle illustrates the complete flaw in term limits, which is that nobody has enough time up there to really have a handle on important issues of public policy,” says Harvey Rosenfield of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which works on the energy issue as well as insurance matters.

The Legislature, with its cumbersome system of checks-and-balances and debates, is not set up to act quickly and the term limits that voters approved 11 years ago have complicated that.

“The people of California should know that there may be benefits to term limits, but this is one of those situations where term limits is costing the state the ability to deal with the situation in a swift manner,” says Michael Shames of Utility Consumers’ Action Network.

California is one of 19 states that limit lawmakers’ terms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state has one of the shortest limits – three, two-year terms in the Assembly and two, four-year terms in the Senate.

Only 31 of the 116 lawmakers who voted unanimously for the 1996 deregulation law are still in the Legislature. Seventeen of the 31 who are left are in their final terms and are thus immune from voters’ potential wrath.

Term limits also mean that 75 of the 79 current Assembly members and 12 of the 39 senators were not here in 1996 to debate the deregulation issue.

“There’s a deep suspicion in the scholarly community that the major effect of term limits is to deprive the Legislature of the kind of background on technical issues that it used to have,” says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley.

In addition, Cain says, the 1990 initiative that imposed term limits also cut the Legislature’s budget, causing cuts in expert staff and encouraging lawmakers to hire political staff to help them in their almost constant re-election battles instead.

In 1996, when term limits had not yet started hitting nearly a third of the Legislature every two years, most lawmakers had years of experience, but many still did not understand electricity’s complexities, says Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.

Today’s situation is even more complex and “now the depth of available expertise is considerably less than it was in 1996,” he said.

However, one of the 1996 lawmakers, Phil Isenberg of Sacramento, thinks term limits have not really affected lawmakers’ handling of the crisis this year.

“I don’t think even if all of us cagy old timers were around the problem would be solved overnight. It’s just too big,” said Isenberg, now a Capitol lobbyist.

Term limit backer Lewis Uhler says the fact that so many current lawmakers were not in office in 1996 probably helps them consider the bills being offered without being defensive about the widely criticized deregulation law.

“The new people are not encumbered with the burden of (1996) participation and may be able to sort it out a little more dispassionately,” said Uhler of the National Tax Limitation Committee.

The 28 freshman elected in November were expecting to spend their first weeks of the session hiring staff, learning the rules of the floor, writing bills and otherwise easing into the busy, complicated world of the Capitol. In a more normal session, bills do not get through committees and onto the Assembly and Senate floors until May.

Instead, the lights went out around the state and lawmakers had to rush through emergency bills.

“It’s a total immersion training,” said one, Assemblyman John Campbell, R-Irvine.

Consumer Watchdog
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