OUT of a pervasive anti-government mood is arising an issue that could turn out to be one of the dominant legacies of the 1990 campaign. The question: Should the terms of legislators be limited?
Oklahoma voters resoundingly said yes this week, becoming the first state in the nation to limit the number of years state legislators can serve (12).
A bigger test of voter sentiment on the issue awaits California and Colorado. Both states have initiatives on the November ballot that would limit state lawmakers' terms. Colorado's measure would also limit the tenure of its congressional delegation.
As the nation's unofficial incubator of political trends, California is drawing much of the attention. Analysts predict - and politicians everywhere fear - that a favorable nod here will send term limitation bounding across the landscape in the 1990s like Proposition 13, the tax-slashing measure, did in the 1980s. Already, advocates in at least two dozen states are urging a constitutional amendment limiting congressional tenure.
The movement here draws support from liberals and conservatives. They have different motives in pushing these initiatives, but there is at least one common denominator: the belief that government isn't working and that term limits will make it more responsive.
``This forces lawmakers to realize that they have so many years to get something done - or get out,'' says James Wheaton, campaign director for Proposition 131, one of two competing term-limit initiatives on the ballot here.
The most far-reaching is Proposition 140, pushed by conservative Pete Schabarum, a former Republican state assemblyman who is now a Los Angeles County Supervisor. It is also backed by the National Tax Limitation Committee.
The measure would limit lifetime service in the state Senate to eight years and the state Assembly to six years. It would hold statewide officeholders - governor, lieutenant governor - to two four-year terms. It also would curtail legislators' pensions and cut funds for operating the legislature by 38 percent.
The other measure, Proposition 131, would limit most statewide elected officials to eight consecutive years in office and state legislators to 12 years. It would also restrict the amount of money candidates could spend on elections and launch a system of public financing that would encourage small donations. Its champions include the public-interest group Common Cause and state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who prior to his primary defeat earlier this year saw the initiative as a central part of his campaign for governor.
Backers of the Schabarum initiative don't think this measure's term limitations go far enough.
Supporters of proposition 131, on the other hand, like to trumpet their campaign-finance reforms, which they believe would make elections more competitive.
Both groups complain that the current system creates a class of politicians who are too hard to turn out of office, too beholden to special-interest money, and too often corrupt.
Critics of term limits - and there are more than just legislators - believe they would discourage people from running for office, sap the legislature of experience, and deprive voters of the right to elect whomever they want.
Limiting tenure, they say, would create a class of novice lawmakers who would be more dependent on unelected staff people and more susceptible to special-interest influence.
``I don't think we should hand over the state to lobbyists, special interests, and career bureaucrats,'' says Daniel Lowenstein, professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles.
More than 90 percent of incumbents who seek reelection to the California legislature win. The average tenure, though, isn't paleozoic: 6.8 years in the Assembly, 8.6 years in the Senate.
Hyperbole is flying from people on both sides of the issue.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D), a principal opponent of term limits and one of the chief targets of proponents, likes to frame the argument this way: Who would you want conducting brain surgery - a doctor with 10 years experience or one fresh out of medical school?
Term-limit advocates retort: Who do you want picking your pocket - a first-time crook or one with 500 jobs under his belt?
A recent California Poll showed both initiatives favored by more than 60 percent of voters. Opponents, lead by Mr. Brown, are expected to raise as much as $4 million to fight the measures.