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Los Angeles Times

Timeout for Term Limits

The first real academic study of the effect of term limits on California confirms the obvious: Term limits made the Legislature worse, not better.

Legislators now spend more time raising campaign money from special interests, the opposite of what term-limit supporters predicted. With only six years to serve in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, they devote ever more time to plotting their next political moves. They see no political benefit in learning the ins and outs of complicated state policy and trying to formulate long-term solutions to critical problems. Committees aren't doing their job of weeding out lousy legislation because members don't want to offend colleagues or special interests by voting against their bills.

The valued professional legislative staff is mostly gone, killed in part by budget restraints imposed in 1990 and abetted by the constant turnover in membership. Aides now tend to come from the members' political campaigns and have little interest in complex policy issues. Lobbyists play an increasing role in formulating legislation. The relative power of the governor has increased.

For all the serious academic observations in the 107-page report from the Public Policy Institute of California (by respected University of California professors Bruce Cain and Thad Kousser), some of the most illuminating comments come from anonymously quoted lawmakers and former lawmakers. From a former senator: "There has been an essential evisceration of the hearing process…. Nothing dies anymore, and there are no rules." Or, from an Assembly committee chair: The Legislature has become "a bill factory where members are looking to make a mark or leave a legacy or get district benefits."

Cain and Kousser offer a conservative proposal for change: Retain a 14-year limit of legislative service but let a member serve most or all of it in one body. Even better, make the limits more like those in other states, perhaps eight years in the Assembly and 12 in the Senate. Getting rid of them altogether is viewed as impossible, because it will take a ballot measure to change the existing system. Polls show that term limits remain popular, but an all-out campaign by the governor could pull public opinion behind looser restrictions.

In general, voters don't trust career politicians and think that breathing the rarefied air of power for too long makes a person forget the interests of those he or she is supposed to represent (although they do like, and keep reelecting, their own lawmakers). Most voters also don't read 107-page academic studies on the negative effects of term limits. Even so, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could mount a successful campaign combining education and exhortation to fix a system that only contributes to the growing problems of state government in California.

1 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Los Angeles Times

Unfortunately, this editorial suggests merely tweaking term limits. Term limits need to be eliminated entirely for legislative offices (but not for executive offices).

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