California's Term Limits: Case Study for US Reform

FIVE years into one of the nation's most far-reaching experiments in state term limits, the citizen revolt shows signs of dramatically reshaping politics in California.

It is leading to a massive turnover of state lawmakers, significant changes in staffing, and a different emphasis on issues.

To supporters, the measure is starting to do what it was supposed to -- usher in a new generation of lawmakers who will help undo the gridlock of the past. But critics see a legislature that lacks experience and leadership, and is thus avoiding making tough decisions on important issues.

''If you wanted to design a prescription for weakening the legislature, voters couldn't have found a more effective one than term limits,'' says John Syer, professor of government at Sacramento State University.

California's experience with term limits is important. While 22 states now have similar laws, the measure here was one of the earliest, affecting a government second in size only to Congress.

Thus, as lawmakers in Washington this week take up the issue of term limits for its members, California provides a case study of what such a move might mean.

Passed in 1990 by a slim margin, Proposition 140 grew out of voter anger over corruption and political paralysis in Sacramento. Under the law, state Assembly (lower house) members may now serve only six years, or three two-year terms, and Senate members only eight years, or two four-year terms. After that, they face a lifetime ban, though they could run for other offices.

Even though no one has officially been turned out of office yet -- and the full impact of the law won't be know for some time -- it is producing plenty of seat-shifting as members anticpate its effects.

''The turnover has been staggering,'' says longtime Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz, who must leave next year.

He notes that currently 58 out of 80 Assembly members have two years or less of experience, and in 1996 no one in the Assembly will have more than four years of experience. No senator will have more than eight years experience.

For the author of Proposition 140, fresh faces, or ''citizen legislators,'' was the answer to gridlock and entrenched incumbents. ''I wanted to end nonsensical, partisan game-playing'' embodied most conspicuously by Speaker of the Assembly Willie L. Brown, says Pete Schabarum, chairman of Citizens for Term Limits and a former Republican Assemblyman.

His plan succeeded. Barely surviving a bruising fight to retain his speakership, Mr. Brown, a 30-year veteran, will be out in 1996. Meanwhile, Mr. Schabarum is hopeful about Assembly newcomers: ''I believe the term-limited folks will take their jobs more seriously and learn them quicker.''

But veteran insiders disagree. Because of a lack of leadership and the inexperience of new members and their staff, policymaking has ground to a halt, say legislators. Assemblyman Katz says novice lawmakers in committees have to ''start from scratch on every issue'' and are ''writing poorly thought-out bills.'' Bureaucrats and lobbyists are stepping in to help write legislation, he adds.

Former California Senate majority leader Barry Keene agrees. A liberal Democrat, Mr. Keene abandoned his seat in 1992 after a 20-year political career in deep frustration with what he felt was an increasingly chaotic statehouse. ''It was painful to see an institution to which I devoted so much of my life floundering and irrelevant,'' he says, sitting in his spare office at Sacramento State University, where he now teaches public policy.

He now divides the legislature into ''lightweights and checkouts,'' or ''those who know and those who don't care.''

Veteran legislators note that new lawmakers seem reluctant to take on issues other than the budget. ''I'm very frustrated. I worry that there's not nearly enough longterm planning and vision work in California,'' says Katz.

He and others who study state government say that new representatives do not have much time to develop a broad understanding of complex policy issues before they are forced out of office. This puts them at a great disadvantage when ''going up against the governor or the bureaucracy,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Already term limits have created a scramble in the Assembly as members try to find other posts in or outside of government, and many are running for office before their terms are up. Some Senators are so eager to stay in office that they are reportedly planning to run for Assembly seats.

Senior staff with years of expertise are also leaving the state capital in droves, some ahead of their bosses. Along with term limits, Proposition 140 mandated a 40 percent cut in the legislative budget, leaving staff vulnerable to layoffs. The Legislative Analysts Office, for example, has lost half its staff.

''It's the old American mythology that amateurs are good at government,'' says Elizabeth Capell, director of government relations for the California Nurses Association. ''There's this notion that newcomers will somehow make it all right. Instead they get hoodwinked by the old-timers.''

The old-timers are unelected lobbyists -- such as Capell -- and state officials who grease the wheels of California's government. Some experts fear that lobbyists will become the state's most reliable source of ''institutional memory.''

Rather than more business as usual, term limit supporters hope such reform will usher in a new era of citizen representation. Latino Republican Assemblyman Fred Aguilar, elected in 1992, believes that he and other newcomers offer ''fresh thinking'' to the statehouse.

But while political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says that races for open, competitive seats have skyrocketed -- due in large part to California's reapportionment in 1991 -- women and minorities have not been swept into office.

She and others do, however, predict a resurgence of grass-roots activity, allowing more people to compete for open seats.

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