Gov. Seeks Deal That Would Ease Term Limits

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to resurrect an idea voters rejected in last year’s special election, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to offer lawmakers a deal: He’ll support an easing of term limits if they’ll agree to change the way California draws voting districts.

Schwarzenegger said in an interview Thursday he does not believe term limits have improved Sacramento’s political culture. Allowing legislators to stay in office longer would be worthwhile, he said, if it induced them to put a proposal on the ballot that would strip them of the power to carve political boundaries.

The governor reasons that lawmakers may not want to change voting districts, most of which favor incumbents, but they dislike term limits even more. One idea already under consideration in the Legislature would double the number of years members could serve in the Assembly -- to 12 from six -- provided they not run for the Senate when their term is up. Senators’ maximum service could be extended to 12 years from eight.

In 1990, voters imposed limits of three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate. Changes to the law require voter approval.

Schwarzenegger says that he wants to make California elections more competitive, and that a new method of redistricting would help. He is backing a measure by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) that would transfer political map-making powers to a panel of 11 citizens, chosen by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and judges, and take effect after the 2010 census.


The initiative voters defeated in November would have given the task to three retired judges appointed by the Legislature from a pool selected by the state’s Judicial Council, and would have gone into effect immediately.

The governor hopes to build a consensus in the Capitol in the next month for his new plan, including an extension of the time state lawmakers can serve, and put the package before voters in November.

“I would like for them to really push forward with this whole idea,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview Thursday. “It’s very clear that people would like to see redistricting and to have a different system than the way it is now, with the gerrymandering, and to perfect the democracy.”

Schwarzenegger recently held a meeting on the issue in his smoking tent in the Capitol courtyard. He invited former legislators, political consultants and representatives of good government groups that want to end the current arrangement, in which lawmakers can draw their districts to favor Republicans, Democrats or independents.

“There is an inherent conflict of interest in allowing legislators to draw their own districts,” said Dan Schnur, who was an aide to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and who attended the meeting. “We’ve put together a coalition across partisan and ideological lines to push for the elimination of that conflict of interest.”

If the governor can get the two major parties behind his plan -- a level of bipartisan cooperation that eluded him last year -- he believes he can present voters something more salable. When voters rejected his redistricting plan last year, it was in a package of four proposals he championed to change state government. All were defeated.

Voters like term limits, polls show, but lawmakers do not.

One proponent of longer terms is the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles. Existing law requires Nunez, 39, to leave the Assembly in 2008, forcing him to run for another office if he wants to continue his career in elective politics.

“Before I leave the Legislature I’m going to make it happen,” Nunez said in an interview this week.

“I’m open to anything voters will support that will allow legislators a little more time to focus on policy and less on politics,” he said.

Officeholders play musical chairs now, he added. “By the time they serve out their first year, they’re trying to figure out where they’re going to go next.”

Schwarzenegger was once supportive of term limits but now says they have failed to improve Sacramento or make lawmakers more accountable.

“I’m not fanatical about that,” he said of the state’s term limits law. “The idea was really good, and there are a lot of people who are big, big fans of term limits. But as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t really produced.”

And Schwarzenegger said he no longer favors a system in which retired judges would draw political maps. In last year’s special election campaign, opponents -- largely Democrats -- lampooned that idea, airing TV spots that featured robed men hovering over a map that resembled a jigsaw puzzle.

“People feel in many ways if they’re more in charge of things and empowered, then that is better,” the governor said. “This time, we’re trying to do it in a different way.”

For the governor to get his proposals before voters in November, things must happen quickly. The Legislature returns from its summer break Aug. 7.

The governor’s aides said lawmakers would have only a few days to pass legislation that would put redistricting and term limits proposals on the November ballot. Any delays would mean the proposals would not go before voters until at least the next statewide elections, in 2008.

Schwarzenegger said that could work. More time means proponents can wage a stronger campaign, he said. What he doesn’t want is for voters to reject redistricting changes a second time.

“We can’t afford to lose it again,” the governor said.

A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California in May showed that nearly two-thirds of Californians believe the state’s method of drawing voting district needs to be changed. And 62% of likely voters favored a citizens commission.

“That has pretty strong support,” said Mark Baldassare, research director for the PPIC.