Back in 1990, after 10 years of Willie Brown outfoxing Republicans and preventing the state from collapsing as the right-wing intended in 1978 with the passage of Prop 13, California conservatives decided they needed another solution to break Democratic power.
Brown had just stopped an effort by the so-called “Gang of Five” – moderate Democrats who threatened to bring down Speaker Brown, including Gary Condit – in 1988, and with Brown having high approval ratings in his San Francisco district, Southern California conservatives placed Proposition 140 on the November 1990 ballot, to limit the terms of all legislators (including Congress).
It passed by a narrow margin, and by 1995 it had started to produce its intended purpose – Willie Brown left to run for mayor of San Francisco, and by the end of the decade, the accumulated experience of the legislature began to erode, as elections became a game of musical chairs, and the legislature became a kind of graduate school for politicians who were always seeking the equivalent of a tenure-track job – a non-term limited elected office.
The results of term limits have been extremely destructive. Legislators focus on the short-term and show little interest in long-term solutions. It takes about 5 or 6 years to fully understand the state budget process, by which point a new Assemblymember is on their way out or too focused on finding their next elective office. Institutional knowledge is left with legislative staff and lobbyists instead of the people who were elected by the voters to represent them.
After 20 years, it’s become clear to almost everyone that term limits has been a failure. And now, in a San Jose Mercury News article, conservatives themselves are finally admitting the error:
“Of all the mistakes I’ve made in public life, the one I regret most is advocating for term limits for the Legislature,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, a leading conservative figure in California who was one of a small number of incumbent legislators who backed the term limits measure two decades ago. “It has harmed the institution badly.”…
Robert Naylor, a Republican Assembly leader in the mid-1980s and former state GOP chairman, said shorter terms have made lawmakers increasingly unwilling to even consider proposals that are opposed by what he called the parties’ “anchor tenants” – for Democrats, unions and trial lawyers; for Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce and anti-tax groups…
Jim Brulte is another one-time term limits fan who’s had a change of heart. A former Republican leader in both the Assembly and Senate, he said term limits fundamentally altered the dynamic between special interests and legislators, especially legislative leaders. And not for the better.
“When I was Republican leader in the Assembly, special interests needed me,” Brulte said. “Today, the leadership in the Legislature needs the special interests.”
The article suggests that there has been an increase in bills sponsored by “special interests” since term limits took effect. Obviously we have to be careful whenever we see the term “special interests” thrown around – those “special interests” often are the working people of California, and there’s a world of difference between a labor union seeking better working conditions and a fairer economy and the California Chamber of Commerce that’s always looking for ways to hoard wealth and impoverish everyone else.
But the overall point is clear: term limits destroyed what had once been seen as the nation’s best state legislature. What began as a spite initiative pushed by right-wingers who saw they were losing their grip on California has become a reckless policy that leaves 36 million people without good representation and without an effective government.
The occasion of the Mercury News article was the qualification of a term limits reform proposal that would allow legislators to serve 12 years in either house, but would not protect current legislators as Prop 93 had. It’s not clear which ballot this new proposal will be on – if it’s on either the presidential primary ballot or the June 2012 primary ballot, I’m not sure it will succeed. If it’s on the November 2012 ballot, it has a strong chance of success.
Perhaps it might have a better shot at passage in the earlier elections in 2012 if more conservatives spoke out in support of it. And while Tom McClintock’s support is useful, the fact remains that the real powers in the California Republican Party – the Howard Jarvis Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, and Grover Norquist – all strongly support the current term limits rules, as it helps guarantee their power over the state GOP.
It’s nice that some of these right-wingers recognize their mistake, even if it’s 20 years too late. But we’re going to have to mount a bigger, stronger campaign against the right if term limits are to be successfully reformed, our legislature fixed, and California’s government made democratic and effective once again.