Term limit reform headed to the ballot

An initiative that would allow state lawmakers termed out in 2008 to stay on the job as long as six more years is headed for the ballot.

An unusual, bipartisan coalition today submitted the “Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act” to the Attorney General’s Office. Once the language has been approved, proponents will gather signatures. The measure could show up on the expected February 2008 presidential primary election.

If the makes it onto the ballot and voters concur, lawmakers could serve 12 years in either the Assembly or the Senate. Current law limits service to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.

The measure also allows lawmakers termed out in 2008 to serve as many as 12 years in their current house. That would allow Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata to serve another four years and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez could say six more years.

It also solves a thorny problem for Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. He terms out next year and planned to run for a single term in Assembly District 11 before running for state superintendent of schools in 2010. (He had served only two of the three Assembly terms allowed before he successfully ran for the Senate.)

But the District 11 incumbent Assemblyman is political ally Mark DeSaulnier, elected just three months ago. In order to avoid running against his friend, DeSaulnier has little choice but to plan a Senate campaign just months into his first term in the Assembly.

If Torlakson could stay in the Senate, where he would likely win re-election, that shift would no longer be necessary.

The term limit extension would also allow Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-San Ramon, to run for re-election rather than jump into a hotly contested congressional fight. Houston is considering running for the seat that Republican Richard Pombo lost in November to Democrat Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton. Both parties are expected to fight hard for that seat.

Except for a return to local politics, the former Dublin mayor had nowhere else to go if he wanted to stay in public office. As a termed out Republican in the last Republican legislative seat in the Bay Area, Houston has little chance of success in Contra Costa County’s heavily Democratic senate district.

Whether or not voters will embrace a modification to their beloved term limits remains an open question, especially if the shift benefits lawmakers currently in office.

It also speaks volumes that the Legislature itself has apparently abdicated term limit reform to outside groups which which it has close ties.

Proponents of the measure include the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Teachers Association, which have been on the opposite side of many issues in the state.

The political team leading the effort is an unlikely partnership, as well.

Veteran Democratic and labor political strategist Gale Kaufman will work with Matthew Dowd, a GOP political consultant for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s overwhelming 2006 win.

For those interested in Kaufman’s press release, here is the text:


Sacramento – Today a bipartisan legislative reform measure, the “Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act,” has been submitted to the California Attorney General. Once approved by the AG’s office, the measure will go to California ‘s voters for signatures.

The measure reduces the total time a member can serve in the California Legislature from 14 to 12 years, while allowing members to gain more experience in one body of the Legislature.

Proponents say the measure will reduce partisanship, help put an end to the constant campaign cycle and empower legislators to work more effectively together across partisan lines. By allowing legislators to become more experienced in one house, the measure also serves to reduce the undue influence of outside special interests that aren’t directly accountable to California ‘s voters.

“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 the next election,” said Allan Zaremberg, President of CalChamber. “In the spirit of California ’s original term limits law, the Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act prevents career politicians – even shortening the total time legislators may serve – while allowing each chamber to benefit fully from the expertise developed during a legislator’s early service.”

The stated purpose of the measure is to provide greater stability and expertise to the Legislature’s policymaking process.

“The California Teachers Association believes California voters should have the right to support or oppose any candidate for political office and should not be denied the opportunity to vote for the candidate of their choice because of artificial barriers such as term limits,” said CTA President Barbara E. Kerr. “The current system makes it difficult for lawmakers to gain the experience and knowledge they need to really help our public schools and kids.”

U.C. Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain has written extensive reports on the impact of term limits, including one for the Public Policy Institute of California, which was also published in a series of studies by the National Conference of State Legislators.

“One of the most important findings in our PPIC report on term limits is that there is a pressing need to hold the executive branch accountable, particularly in the budget process, to ensure that taxpayer money isn’t being wasted,” Cain said. “Amending term limits to give legislators more time and incentives to develop expertise will be an important step toward making state agencies, and the executive branch as a whole, more accountable. This is an important reform – it’s a basic issue of checks and balances.”

“California ‘s term limit law is not working for its citizens in terms of the complexity of the issues the legislature must confront. The proposed change would solve that problem while providing for continuing turnover in the legislature,” said Bill Hauck, President of the California Business Roundtable and former Chairman of the California Constitution Revision Commission. “It’s time to modify the arbitrary limits in current law and stop the exodus of qualified and talented elected leaders.”

Lisa Vorderbrueggen