Legislative term limits are a bad idea, and The Times opposes them. From the time California voters adopted Proposition 140 in 1990 to today, neither the Assembly nor the state Senate has become the model of legislative efficiency that the measure's promoters promised. Quite the opposite.
The limits — three two-year terms for a member of the Assembly and two four-year terms for a senator — thrust rookies into leadership positions, and their inexperience shows. Rather than rising to the position of Assembly speaker or Senate president pro tem based on years of legislative accomplishment, ambitious members walk in the Capitol door for the first time with no credentials for office or for elevation other than the power to raise lots of money and a penchant for making promises.
Those who do rise to the top, and those fighting to get there, are indebted to Capitol bureaucrats, who guard the expert knowledge of how to get things done and how to drag their feet. Term-limited lawmakers come and go but aides, staffers and bureaucrats stay on, developing their own agendas and their own methods of manipulating their short-term bosses.
Lobbyists too hold lawmakers in their thrall. Term limits give them increasing control over the blur of eager-to-please politicians who pass through Sacramento without picking up much knowledge, clout or independence. Lobbyists and their special-interest clients say that they would prefer to work with grown-ups rather than train new classes of legislative babies every two years. But term limits are working well for them. It is worth noting that since 1990, political machines — organized labor on the left and chambers of commerce, no-tax populists and tough-on-crime groups on the right — have greatly increased their presence and power in the Capitol.
The folks who are probably happiest with term limits, although they would deny it, are the campaign consultants, fundraisers and slate-mail purveyors who profit off the churn of legislative newbies who constantly bounce into the system to take the place of yesterday's newbies who are termed out.
Did we mention that we don't like term limits?
But to get rid of term limits altogether, Sacramento politicians would first have to earn the trust of voters, and we don't see that happening any time in the next millennium. So reformers have offered a half-measure: Reduce the maximum possible time any single politician can serve in the Legislature from the current 14 years — a full six in the Assembly followed by a full eight in the Senate — to 12 years, but allow all 12 to be served in one house, or any combination of 12 in the two houses.
That's the gist of Proposition 28 on the June 5 ballot. It's an improvement. Voters should adopt it.
Opponents of Proposition 28 claim the measure is dishonest. They say it swindles voters into believing the maximum allowable time in office would drop from 14 years to 12. But it would indeed drop. So what's the problem?
The problem, the no-on-28 people say, is that few Sacramento politicians currently serve 14 years, so giving them the safety of 12 is actually giving them more time in office, not less. And it's true that most Assembly members don't move on to the Senate. They can't because there are 80 Assembly seats and only 40 spots in the Senate. Someone termed out of the Assembly may have no place to go in the Senate, so he or she may seek the cozy comfort of a city council seat (a part-time distraction in most cities but a salary and pension bonanza in Los Angeles) or may make a play for the Board of Equalization before the Senate seat opens up.
The difference between yes-on-28 people and the folks who misplace their faith in term limits is that we readily admit that we want pols to stay put and do a little work before churning their way through other campaigns, other fundraising cycles, other elections and other offices. Cynical as newspaper people may become, we have enough faith in politics and democracy to know that some of the real clunkers who are elected to the Legislature will eventually be turned out. The way things stand now, they can grab another seat somewhere before voters get a chance to notice their incompetence.
Still, let's acknowledge the sweeteners that the good-government types put into Proposition 28 to appeal to skeptics. The way things stand, a politician who is first elected to the Legislature to fill the unexpired term of someone who moved on (to a city council, perhaps, or to Congress) can fill out that term — if it's less than half a full term — and then go on to serve a full three terms in the Assembly and two in the state Senate. So with bits and pieces of unexpired terms added in, the true maximum time someone can potentially serve is 17 years. Not under Proposition 28. Twelve years, and that's it. It's excessively stern, but if it comforts voters enough to go for it, then fine.
Let's also be straightforward about who is backing this measure, and then let's speculate as to why. The good-government types — the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, among others — are on board, and that stands to reason. But so are organized labor and the chambers of commerce. They are exactly the interests, on the left and the right, respectively, that profit from the current system. They clearly see their prospects improving under Proposition 28.
But we're fine with that, and voters should be too. Labor and business work best — for themselves, but also for each other and for all Californians — when they are working with lawmakers who are smart and capable and who know how to negotiate, compromise and draft intelligent legislation. That's a whole lot better than only being able to say, "Will you hold a fundraiser for my next office?"