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PROPOSED INITIATIVE WOULD EASE TERM LIMITS

Times Staff Writer

Special interests with close ties to lawmakers launched a ballot initiative Thursday that would allow current legislators to stay in office up to six years longer than term limits now permit.

The proposed measure, which was filed Thursday with the state attorney general, would do what the Legislature’s leaders have advocated with increasing urgency as their 2008 ousters approach: Cut the number of years a lawmaker can hold office from 14 to 12, but allow them to be served in one house.

Existing law limits total legislative service to 14 years, with a maximum of three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate.

Authors of the proposal said it would give Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) six more years in the lower house and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) four more in the upper house.

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Proponents of the measure include the California Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobby, and the California Teachers’ Assn., the state’s influential teachers union.

The proposed initiative would extend the terms of sitting lawmakers by allowing them to remain in place until they have served 12 years in their current house. Some could end up serving as many as 20 years in the Legislature before having to leave.

People already termed out of the Assembly or Senate could not run for those houses again. Former lawmakers’ years of service would count toward the 12-year cap if they returned to the Capitol.

Voters imposed term limits by passing a 1990 initiative that also cut the Legislature’s budget nearly in half and jettisoned the lawmakers’ retirement system. Past attempts to relax term limits have failed.

Lew Uhler, who helped promote the 1990 initiative, said its passage was about “breaking up a power monopoly.” He said that many people were working their way up through local political offices on the assumption that term limits would provide openings for them to run for the Legislature.

“All of a sudden this whole business could frustrate potentially good folks from both parties throughout the state who reasonably relied on the current rules,” he said.

Lawmakers could put a term limits revision on the ballot themselves. But the architects of the proposal said that would appear too self-serving.

“The Legislature putting it on themselves ... doesn’t help you build the support you need to pass this as much as 1 million people signing it,” said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political consultant and Nunez advisor who will manage the campaign for the initiative.

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By late July, the campaign must collect 1.1 million voter signatures, she said.

The Legislature is acting swiftly to move California’s presidential primary to February 2008, and the term limits proposal, if it qualified, could appear on that ballot.

If the measure passed, new limits would take effect before the next legislative primaries, in June 2008. Nunez and Perata could run in those primaries.

Unlikely partners

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Kaufman, who spearheaded the defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2005 special election agenda, will have an unlikely partner in her effort: Matthew Dowd, campaign strategist for Schwarzenegger’s resounding reelection in November.

Schwarzenegger has said he is willing to discuss term limit changes as part of a package that also will take away lawmakers’ power to draw their own voting districts and give it to an independent panel.

Nunez has vowed to push a redistricting overhaul through the Legislature this year.

Business and labor groups probably will fund the campaign, Kaufman said, because they have been arguing for the need to modify term limits.

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Chamber President Allan Zaremberg said, “We need to reform the current system so that California has a stable Legislature that is focused on solving the state’s growing challenges” rather than on reelection.

Riding high from a session last year that many praised as the Legislature’s most productive in years, and without an obvious landing pad when he is termed out next year, Nunez has increasingly said in recent months that he thinks that voters will be open to adjusting term limits.

“You can’t do the job effectively if you can’t be there for a reasonable amount of time, to have a real grasp on the issues,” he told a group of newspaper publishers last month. " ... It takes a couple of years to develop the level of expertise and know-how to negotiate a balanced budget.”

The Legislature has enjoyed a recent boost in its usually abysmal public approval rating.

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In a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 40% of adults approved of the Legislature’s performance and 44% disapproved -- up from 29% approval and down from 57% disapproval in January 2006.

“We think there’s a window, largely driven by the perceptions of the Legislature and governor working together,” Dowd said. “A lot depends on what happens in the next year.”

Former Republican campaign strategist Dan Schnur, who helped defeat a 2002 measure to relax term limits, predicted doom for the proposal, saying the public would not like an exception being made for current lawmakers.

“If you create an extension for current members, it becomes much, much easier for the opposition to make the case that you’re weakening term limits rather than strengthening them,” Schnur said.

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Revolving door

Many political scientists who have studied term limits support a relaxation. They say that a revolving door has cost institutional knowledge, strengthened the hand of lobbyists, weakened the Legislature’s traditional oversight role, and encouraged lawmakers to chase headlines rather than solve intractable problems like prison overcrowding and pension system shortfalls.

“The effects of term limits have been most severe in California,” said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, who helped lead a national study of the effects of term limits that was published in 2004.

“They are the most severe limits anywhere in the country,” he said, “in the state that has the most complex problems.”

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In the 1990s, 21 states imposed term limits.

They are now in effect in 15 states. Courts tossed out restrictions in four states, and lawmakers repealed them in Idaho and Utah.

Bills to repeal or relax term limits are pending in Arizona, Maine, Michigan and South Dakota, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California lawmakers point with hope to Los Angeles, where voters in November gave City Council members an extra four-year term, linked to tighter lobbying rules.

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“It’s a fairly significant thing when L.A. does anything, and we ought to look at it very carefully,” Perata said earlier this week.

After he learned of the proposed initiative Thursday from Nunez, Perata issued a statement that any modification should be tied to a discussion of how to make government more open and accountable.

“It’s not just about how long we serve,” Perata said, “but how well we serve.”

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Changing term limits for the Legislature

A proposed ballot initiative would reduce the years a legislator can serve from 14 to 12 but allow them all to be served in one house.

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Current and proposed term limits (in years)

*--* Current Proposed Maximum in Legislature 14 12 Assembly 6 12 Senate 8 12

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Source: Times reporting


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