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Deal to Ease Term Limits Draws Legislators’ Interest

Times Staff Writer

A bipartisan collection of lawmakers interviewed Friday voiced measured support for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s suggestion that they surrender the power to draw voting districts in return for the possibility of staying in their jobs longer.

Lawmakers also said there was enough time, when they return from summer break next month, to pass such a package and put it before voters on the November ballot.

“Where there’s a will of the Legislature, there’s always time,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster).

Runner said she once liked the state’s term limits law, which caps Assembly service at six years and Senate service at eight. No more.

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“It’s too short,” she said. “You get in your first year and figure out what you’re doing and how you can help. And then you’re working hard and getting roles you’ve worked hard to get. And in the last two years, you’re pretty much out.”

Schwarzenegger is eager to revive one of the proposals that voters defeated in last year’s special election -- a plan that strips lawmakers of the power to carve political districts. The governor instead would entrust the mapmaking to a citizens commission -- an arrangement he says would make California elections more competitive.

He also believes that putting citizens in charge would prove more palatable to voters than last year’s proposal, which would have given the job to a panel of three retired judges.

Before the governor can put the redistricting proposal before voters, he must get the Legislature to go along. Recognizing that lawmakers are loath to give up the power to determine where they run for office, he wants to ease term limits as an inducement.

Many lawmakers in both parties dislike the state’s term limits law. They say it gives them too little time to develop the skills needed to be effective in government.

One of the ideas being considered in the Legislature would permit lawmakers to serve a full 12 years in either the Assembly or Senate. Although polls show that voters like term limits, proponents are hopeful the public will go along with such an adjustment.

“The current term limit system does not work,” said Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). “It was a nice experiment, and it has shown it hasn’t worked. Almost half the Assembly next year will be new. You can’t have continuity of government or policy” with so many new faces.

Ackerman said, though, that he has some reservations about the redistricting proposal that Schwarzenegger is backing. The measure, by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), would involve judges and lawmakers in selecting an 11-member citizens commission to draw boundaries.

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Ackerman said that if voters see the Legislature playing a role in selecting the commission, they might balk.

“That would be a negative,” Ackerman said. “I think the voting populace would see through that as another way for the Legislature to control what is going on.”

Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) said she would support Lowenthal’s plan as long as “we make sure the new system would work well.” As for extending terms, she said, “I think most legislators would be supportive.”

Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, the Democratic majority leader in the upper house, said of the governor’s deal: “It’s an idea that intrigues me; it’s an idea of which I could be supportive.”

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Romero said, however, that she would like to see the citizens commission’s authority expanded so it also could make the decision on whether to roll back term limits or keep them in place.

“Let’s look at a bipartisan commission that can examine all of this,” Romero said.

Assembly Republican leader George Plescia (R-San Diego) said he could embrace what Schwarzenegger is pitching, provided the redistricting changes are meaningful.

“More important to me is redistricting reform,” Plescia said. “But I could support the overall package.”

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Like Ackerman, Plescia said he had doubts about any redistricting plan that preserved a role for the Legislature.

“You’re going to need to get it away from the Legislature as much as possible,” he said.


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