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Is It Time to Vote Term Limits Out of Office?

Legislative term limits has been a self-inflicted wound by the electorate, a damaging blow to representative government.

It has turned Assembly members into antsy, ambitious amateurs -- devoid of enough experience to adequately perform their current jobs, but always jockeying for the next elective office. They’re afraid to act without reading a poll or consulting a bankrolling special interest.

Lawmakers aren’t around long enough to acquire institutional pride, an ingredient helpful in inspiring long-term solutions to state problems.

Not all legislators, but far too many.

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That’s my view. But admittedly, there are sound arguments on the other side.

After all, term limits hadn’t yet kicked in when legislators in 1996, with all their experience, unanimously passed arguably the worst consumer bill ever: electricity deregulation.

And there were no term limits in the 1980s when the FBI conducted a Capitol sting that led to 14 convictions on political corruption. Five of those nabbed were lawmakers.

The public was outraged and, in 1990, approved term limits by a narrow margin of 4.3 percentage points. The cause was helped substantially by Republican Pete Wilson, who endorsed term limits at a crucial point as he was running for governor against Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Wilson also was helped, winning by just 3.5 points.

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The former governor now has “mixed feelings” about term limits.

“It has not achieved its announced purpose,” Wilson says. “The purpose of term limits was to bring a different kind of legislator to Sacramento, one more representative of the community, not a political professional.”

Wilson still thinks “the idea is not a bad one,” but concedes, “it probably could use some adjustment.”

Assembly members currently are allowed three two-year terms. Senators get two four-year terms.

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George Kieffer, chairman of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t think an “adjustment” -- increasing the terms -- would do the job. He wants to completely abolish term limits and, at the same time, strip the Legislature of its power to redraw legislative and congressional districts. Retired judges would do the redistricting.

Even if terms were lengthened, he says, “that wouldn’t change the dynamic” of lawmakers constantly conniving for the next office and leaning on special interests to help them obtain it.

Kieffer intends to ask the chamber board today to go on record in favor of this dual action: scrapping term limits and reforming reapportionment. He theorizes that the prospect of an honest redistricting -- eliminating gerrymanders that protect incumbents and making seats more competitive -- might sell voters on junking term limits.

Don’t hold your breath, says Democratic consultant Garry South.

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South favors altering term limits and has tested the concept in many polls and focus groups. “I just don’t think people care,” South says. “You can outline all the horrors and they don’t care. They want legislators in and out of there quickly.

“People thought the Legislature was completely screwed up when we had no term limits and they think it’s completely screwed up now with them.”

South adds: “I think term limits has been very destructive. It has turned the food chain upside down. Politicians used to go up the ladder. Now, they go up and back down and run for city council. Up and down. These people keep recycling themselves or they run their wives for office. It’s a joke. They’re never going to disappear.

“It brings to Sacramento people who have no incentive to think over the long term. They’re thinking about their own short-term best interest. But voters are not willing to listen to it.”

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Evidence of this was found in September by the Field Poll. A survey of California voters found 75% saying term limits is “a good thing.” But a plurality, 43%, thought term limits has had “no effect” on the lawmakers’ performance.

The Public Policy Institute of California on Wednesday released probably the most comprehensive report yet on California term limits. The study, however, was inconclusive about the end result of term limits on public policy. It did recommend that the maximum legislative service be kept at 14 years, while allowing lawmakers to spend their time in just one house.

The study, prepared by political scientists Bruce Cain of UC Berkeley and Thad Kousser of UC San Diego, concluded: “Term limits have eroded legislative capacities.... Committees now screen out fewer bills.... The Legislature is less likely to alter the governor’s budget, and its own budget process neither encourages fiscal discipline nor links legislators’ [bills] to overall spending goals.

“Legislative oversight of the executive branch has also declined significantly.”

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It found that the election of women and minorities has been accelerated, but this already had been the trend.

The study saw that “new members today appear to be as interested as their predecessors were in long-term political careers.”

Nothing wrong with that. Politics is noble. It’s about representative government. This place certainly could use more professionalism -- more knowledge and expertise.

It’s just that everybody would be better off if the lawmakers were allowed to stay in one house until fired by the voters.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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