Defending term limits

At some point, you would think that California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez would get the message: Golden State voters like legislative term limits just the way they are, thank you very much.

But as The Times noted in its story, “Nuñez pushes a legislative revamp as his legacy,” the speaker is “putting time” into the effort to extend legislative term limits, only a few months after pouring every ounce of his political capital into a failed bid extend them -- and his own tenure. It’s hard to imagine a politician being any more obtuse or indifferent to the will of the people.

Eager to re-establish his legacy after voters rejected his signature initiative, Nuñez says his latest effort to dismantle California’s popular limits on Assembly and Senate terms “would be a contribution to the Legislature as an institution.”

Of course that’s what he thinks. But isn’t that the rub? Doesn’t the “Legislature as an institution” exist to contribute something to the people of California, not the other way around?

And because the people of California clearly expressed themselves on this very issue only three months ago, why should millions of dollars be spent to hold another referendum just six months from now?

The defeat of Proposition 93 was the latest in a string of setbacks for career politicians like Nuñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). Both pulled every string imaginable -- including the adoption of misleading ballot language and a highly questionable petition certification count -- to have the referendum placed before voters in the February election.

Like the Bates vs. Jones lawsuit in 1997 (which was brought by a California politician seeking to have the state’s term limits declared unconstitutional) or 2002’s Proposition 45 (which was spearheaded by then-Senate Democratic leader John Burton of San Francisco), major assaults on legislative term limits have originated in the Legislature. And each one has been turned back.

Nuñez and his allies spent $16 million on this latest campaign, enjoyed every electoral advantage imaginable and even negotiated a deal for the support of popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And voters still saw through the scam.

Shocked at the defeat of Proposition 93, Nuñez lamented to reporters shortly after the election that the measure failed because he was unable to “work out a redistricting deal with my Republican colleagues.” Not surprisingly, his latest plan seeks to remedy that perceived error.

What Nuñez still fails to grasp, however, is that his measure didn’t fall victim to one of the few insider deals he failed to make; it lost because the more voters learned about what he and his special interest friends were up to, the more suspicious they became.

As much as politicians like Nuñez, Perata and others might wish, California voters are not stupid.

Their support of legislative term limits withstood the perfect storm of money, momentum and political misdirection this February, sending a clear message to the politicians in Sacramento that even the most sophisticated effort to circumvent their will is destined to fail.

The lesson lost on Nuñez and so many of his colleagues is a simple one: It is past time for lawmakers to stop focusing on undoing term limits and start focusing on the jobs they were elected to do while they are in office.

Philip Blumel is president of U.S. Term Limits.

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