A group of state lawmakers is quietly backing a campaign to prolong the maximum tenure in office, angering the activists who persuadaded California voters to approve limits for state officials 11 years ago.
The lawmakers, who include Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) and Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), are working to place an initiative on the March 2002 ballot that would give voters the power to extend the careers of popular legislators.
Under the initiative, which would need support from a majority of state voters to become law, legislators could petition constituents in their districts to remain in office beyond the current limit of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.
If 20% of voters in the most recent election signed the petitions, the lawmaker could serve an extra four years. Lawmakers could only exercise the "local legislative option" once in their state political careers.
Wesson, who is poised to become the next Assembly speaker, said term limits prevent officeholders from developing the experience needed to tackle complicated issues and deal with special interests.
He noted that as lawmakers wrestle with one of the most serious problems in state history--the energy crisis--only one remains in the Assembly from the group that deregulated electricity in 1996.
"From the first day I got here, I indicated that the way term limits are currently structured does not benefit Californians," Wesson said. "From the moment you get to the Assembly, you are thinking about your next move" to another office.
"I'm not sure that's in the best interest of constituents," he said.
However, supporters of the 1990 term limits law characterize the initiative as only the latest in a long line of desperate ploys by politicians to undo the will of the people. They say term limits are as important as ever to ensure big-city political bosses do not rule the Legislature forever, and they are mobilizing to defend the restrictions.
"At the end of the day, it will be clear this effort is being financed by politicians and special interests who hate term limits with a passion," said Paul Jacob of the national group U.S. Term Limits, who is visiting California this week to drum up opposition to the initiative. "The attempt to portray this as an effort to fine-tune term limits is misleading and false. It's a pretty sneaky attempt to be pro-term limits when this would not help term limits one iota."
Wesson has not contributed money to the initiative campaign, but said he has recommended to donors that they do so. Perata, who led a failed push in the Legislature to relax term limits last year, said he had not given money to the campaign, but had provided it with opinion polls and other research he had gathered, and asked the people spearheading it to lead the effort.
"I think it's gotta rest pretty strongly on independent support," Perata said, "because I think people are inherently suspicious of anything that looks like it's being driven by legislative self-interest."
Publicly at least, the initiative campaign is being led by a broad coalition, from senior citizens groups to the business lobby, that argues that the current caps have clearly diminished the ability of the California Legislature.
"The current system, while it has some positive aspects to it, just does not allow enough time for people to develop an expertise in an area and make a significant contribution," said Bill Powers of the Congress of California Seniors, one of the sponsors of the initiative. "We just feel the current term limits in California are not working."
Both sides acknowledge that any effort to tamper with term limits faces an uphill fight. Republicans and Democrats have tried passing laws to lengthen the maximum term, or abolish the caps altogether, but none has emerged from the Legislature.
The reason is clear: Numerous polls have shown term limits to be a big hit with voters. Privately, many legislators say they sympathize with the idea of softening term limits, but they worry about being portrayed as political lifers.
As a result, many supporters of relaxing the limits have concluded the only alternative is going directly to the people with an initiative led by groups well outside the Capitol, even if the odds at the ballot box are sure to be long.
Supporters are still gathering the 670,000 signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the ballot. At supermarkets and shopping malls, they portray the proposed petitions as a democratic approach that will give voters a way to reward especially skilled and popular politicians--making a special case for a special lawmaker.
Opponents say the inevitable result would be a wave of petitions in every legislative district.
"It would only be the rare occasion when incumbents, with their money and name recognition, would not be able to get these signatures," Jacob said. "It would be [successful] 99 out of 100 times."
Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.