Orange County supervisors on Tuesday are poised to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to let them keep their jobs for four additional years, as politicians increasingly challenge the term limits imposed on them in the 1990s.
The move follows a decision by the Los Angeles City Council this month to propose the same change and comes as talks continue in Sacramento to ease term limits as part of a compromise with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on legislative district boundaries.
“There is a growing backlash” by politicians, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego. “Across the country, and across California, we’re seeing more action and more of a will by politicians to extend term limits than ever before.”
Populist fervor led term limits to be imposed across a wide swath of the nation beginning in 1990, in a belief that limiting politicians’ length of service would make them more accountable to voters. But there has been a growing sense among political experts that term limits have wrought unintended consequences: diminished policy expertise, increased special interest power and the constant distraction of looking for the next elected office.
A recent study conducted by Kousser and UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain found that term limits had diminished the effectiveness of the state Legislature, and that a new breed of “citizen legislators” never materialized.
Still, term limits remain popular with voters, and political observers say attempts to change them face an uphill battle.
Efforts to prolong politicians’ terms have had mixed results in California. In 1998, Santa Clara County voters agreed to give supervisors an extra four-year term.
But in 2002, a statewide measure to extend the limits four years for legislators was soundly defeated. In no state have voters overturned term limits.
Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at UC Riverside and author of “Reforming the Republic,” about the initiative process and political reform, said voters had not been convinced that term limits are bad.
“Unless and until that case is made, folks are still going to like them,” he said. “Because they don’t like politicians much.”
Orange County voters adopted term limits in 1996 by nearly 4 to 1 after the county’s bankruptcy. The limits allow supervisors to serve two consecutive four-year terms.
Now, under a proposal being put forward by board member Chris Norby, supervisors could serve an additional term. It would also create a lifetime limit of 12 years of service. Current law allows a supervisor who has served two terms to run again after vacating the office.
The term limit extension would also extend additional financial benefits to the supervisors. Under the county’s retirement system, employees, including board members, must serve 10 years before they are vested.
After serving two terms, supervisors do not receive the county’s matching contribution to their retirement, but a third term would carry them over the threshold.
“I think the public is ready to take a look at it,” Norby said. “If they want to keep them where they are, that’s fine. If they think 12 consecutive years is reasonable, that’s fine too.” Norby was overwhelmingly reelected to his second term last month. He would not say whether he would seek a third if voters approved the measure.
The Los Angeles City Council voted two weeks ago to let voters decide if members could serve three four-year terms instead of two, limits that were imposed under a ballot initiative championed by Richard Riordan in 1991. Riordan says he supports the change.
In Sacramento, legislative leaders and the governor have been bargaining over a proposal that would ease the restriction limiting members to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.
Legislators want to change the law so they could serve a full 12 years in either house and possibly increase the number of years from 14 to 16. In exchange, the governor is seeking changes to make legislative districts more competitive.
Supervisors in San Bernardino County on Tuesday are also expected to place a term limit measure on the November ballot. This one has a twist: Supervisors, who currently do not face limits, would agree to accept three four-year terms, as long as voters also approve linking their pay to that of Superior Court judges, giving them a raise.
Shirley L. Grindle, a government watchdog in Orange County, said she didn’t begrudge the supervisors or anyone else a third term.
“I think one of the dumbest decisions I ever made was to vote for term limits,” said Grindle, who believes they have allowed state-level politicians with enormous war chests to hold unfair advantages in running for local office. “I am very sorry that I did.”