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Time’s Up for Term Limits

A law professor who studies California’s legal history argues that the Golden State’s experiment in term limits — which he originally supported — has failed.

In 1990, I voted for term limits.

My reason for voting yes on Proposition 140, which established in California the nation’s strictest limits, was disgust with the Legislature, which, in turn, made me willing to experiment. Perhaps legislators would be more constructive — and less partisan — if their time in Sacramento were limited. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.”

More than 52 percent of California’s voters voted for Proposition 140. Maybe some of them had views similar to mine. Others wanted to depose then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who was being demonized by the right and came to symbolize arrogance in state government. Also, Republicans may have hoped limits would be a tactic to add Republicans.

Initially, I was pleased with term limits (and 14 other states now have them). One benefit was the proliferation of open seats. New, capable people were being elected, without waiting for entrenched incumbents’ retirements. For example, Sheila Kuehl, who was one of the ablest legislators of her generation, was first elected to the Assembly in 1994. How long would she — and we —have had to wait without terms limits to open up a seat?

Now, 20 years later, the experiment has failed. My disgust in 1990 has become despair in 2010, as the Legislature’s performance has worsened. The failure may be ascribed to four reasons.

First, while limits opened up seats for capable newcomers, they also booted out valuable incumbents. For example, Kuehl replaced Terry Freidman, who was himself a relative newcomer. Friedman was a bright, thoughtful legislator and could have served with distinction — and increasing experience — for years. Instead, faced with term limits, Freidman successfully ran for a seat on the Superior Court, where he served for 15 years. The caricature of an invulnerable, out-of-touch lifer who deserved to be forced out was often false.

This forced turnover has been particularly devastating on legislative leaders. For example, the Assembly speaker is the second-most powerful position in California government. Three of the longest tenured speakers since World War II — Jesse Unruh, Bob Moretti and Brown — were effective under both Republican and Democratic governors. Unruh and Moretti each served in the Assembly for six years before becoming speaker, and Brown waited 15 years.

By contrast, the current speaker, John Perez, is in his first term holding any elective office. However capable he may be, he could improve with experience; also, whatever experience he acquires will disappear when he himself is termed out in four years. This pattern has been repeated with previous speakers (Perez’s predecessor, Karen Bass, served less than two years) and with committee chairs. Indeed, critics of government often suggest that government emulate private enterprise, but no successful business would so strictly limit its own leadership.

Second, while legislators are forced out, lobbyists and staff remain. The result is that term limits are a hoax: California still has entrenched political leaders, but, as lobbyists and staff, they are even less accountable than incumbents.

Third, the theory that term limits would foster more independence and less partisanship appears unsupported by evidence. Republican and former legislator Tom Campbell has spoken of his own survey of legislators’ voting records. Contrary to the theory of limits, legislators in their last terms, when they are not running again, are more likely to adhere to the straight party line. Certainly in California, post-term-limits legislators appear to be more partisan than their predecessors.

Fourth, California’s problems, particularly budget crises, have been years in the making. Decisions made years or even decades ago — enacting an automatic cost-of-living adjustment, foregoing revenue, creating an unfunded mandate and so forth — all have contributed to today’s deep, structural problems. However, legislators who cast the key votes years ago have been termed out and are not being held accountable for their misdeeds. California needs to plan for the long term, but term limits discourage such planning.

Even Republicans’ hopes that terms limits would benefit them have been dashed. The state’s Senate and the Assembly each have fewer Republicans now than in 1990.

Finally, maybe the need for term limits has abated. To the extent that gerrymandered districts unfairly benefited incumbents, the neutral redistricting initiative approved by voters in 2008 eliminated this benefit.

Still, why continue to debate term limits? After all, in 2008, Californians voted against relaxing limits, and I am unaware of any new groundswell to revisit the issue. The debate is important, because California is falling further into the abyss. Rescue will not be in the form of sound bites (“citizen-legislators”) or other simplistic rhetoric. Rather, California needs to summon wise expertise to begin long-term solutions. To the extent that term limits thwart that process, they should be changed.

As citizens, we should communicate these views to our legislators and to our business and union leaders. Moreover, we should support change with our signatures, our financial contributions and our votes.