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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wrong Solution To Term Limits

Let me make this clear--the Term Limits law passed in California is one of the worst initiatives that California voters have passed with the most unintended consequences since Proposition 13. For those who thought that Term Limits would produce more competition for legislative seats, redistricting has pretty much taken care of that ideal. Moreover, you have placed a huge governmental system and the eighth largest economy in the world (we've slipped recently) in the hands of rank amateurs. As soon as legislators learn how to actually govern, they are termed out.

This has forced an accelerated Peter Principle on California governance, because instead of doing away with career politicians, it creates a revolving door of mediocre ones, shuffling from office to office, because what they lack in expertise about government and their specific job, they gain in expertise on how to win political office. So it is actually the worst of all worlds--you have career politicians pushed into positions of higher office, rather than stuck in the lower level of the legislature where they can gain some expertise on how to craft legislation.

The other unintended consequence is that expertise in government is always a valued commodity. And if the elected legislators do not have that expertise, that void will be filled by unelected staff members and more problematically by unelected lobbyists. The power in Sacramento has been transferred from the elected members of the legislature to the powerful interests and lobbyists.

Term limits was one of those things that sounds good on paper to some who thought they could break the stranglehold of career politicians and probably as importantly then Speaker Willie Brown, but it is a disaster in practice. Unfortunately most people do not pay sufficient attention to the California legislature to realize that.

The dangers of the initiative system are that once done, it is near impossible to undo. That leads us to the latest attempt to undo the damage.

Past attempts to add terms have failed. Thus, the current attempt is a bit more innovative. Presently you can serve three-two year terms in the Assembly and two-four year terms in the Senate. That is a total of 14 years in the legislature. The current change will allow a total 12 years to be served in the legislature regardless of the house of the legislature you serve in. That way they can sell it to the public as a more stringent measure since it reduces the overall years a legislator can serve.

That makes sense, so you would serve up to six two years in the Assembly or three four year terms in the Senate or some combination thereof.

The advantage is of course, instead of having to serve only six years in the Assembly, you could serve 12 and have a much more experienced body.

The biggest beneficiary in this is of course Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez. He's not only the biggest beneficiary but also the individual pushing this legislation. And he has the California Teacher's Association and the State Chamber of Commerce carrying the water for him on the legislation.

The proposal is also drafted in such a way that existing officeholders who have not used up all of the time allowed under the current term limits law, can serve out the extended time allowed until they bump up against the overall limit for the house.

What that means is that all of the people lining up to run for the 8th Assembly District and 5th Senate District, because Lois Wolk and Mike Machado are termed out respectively, may have to wait because Wolk would get six more years and Machado four more years--if they want it. That would throw everyone's plans into flux.

And the legislators are pushing for the February Primary for the President only, so that the voters can pass this term limits law in February and then in June all of the incumbents can run for reelection without being termed out.

This all sounds good if you are an opponent of term limits. But if you look closely, it doesn't solve the problem, it creates more problems.

This law would probably improve the situation in the Assembly. Members could run and hold an Assembly seat for 12 years. That is twice the length they can hold it now and that would stop the revolving door of legislators and Speakers.

However, it may make the situation even worse in the State Senate. Normally you have people who have spent time in the State Assembly, and who are experienced legislators moving over to the State Senate. But it may not work that way anymore. If you spend 12 years in the State Assembly, you would not be able to serve any time in the State Senate. Conceivably, you could have people moving from the State Assembly to the State Senate and only allowed to serve one term, creating a revolving door at the State Senate level. Furthermore, a large number of seats would probably be held by people with no legislative service at all.

Moreover, you still have the Peter Principle at work, where people who have served their now 12 years look toward another office to hold rather than gaining expertise in the office they currently hold. So they move from the state legislature to Constitutional Offices or possibly Congressional Offices.

This bill doesn't seem to solve the problems, rather it seems designed to give Fabian Nunez another six years as Speaker of the Assembly.

This may end up being one term limits reform bill I will vote against.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting