Proponents say they just want a little "wiggle room" for popular politicians, forced out of office by term limits, to be able to run for office one more time.
Opponents say the wiggle room will turn into an escape clause to get around term-limit laws and create statehouses filled with career-politicians they were designed to stop.
Eleven years after the citizen juggernaut of setting term limits for statehouse politicians began rolling here - followed by 18 more states through the '90s - the state where it all started is considering giving the idea an interesting tweak.
A measure called Proposition 45 will ask voters on March 5 to loosen term-limit laws. If passed, it would allow assembly members to run for a fourth term (and senators for a third term) if they can collect enough signatures from voters in their districts to equal 20 percent of the district's vote in the last election.
National observers say the vote will be an important test of whether public opinion has shifted away from the "throw-the-bums-out" sentiments of the past decade. Elsewhere in the country, term-limit laws are being challenged. This past Friday, Idaho's legislature repealed its term-limit laws, becoming the fourth state to do so since 1997.
"There is some feeling in many areas of the country that the issue of term limits has passed its vogue, because the public is showing high degrees of satisfaction with both government institutions and legislators," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, in Northfield Minnesota.
The debate raging here isn't too dissimilar to the verbal fisticuffs that have always raged over term limits. But now, both supporters and detractors of the laws point to evidence gathered over the past decade to bolster their case.
Those who continue to support term limits say the laws have brought more diversity into the political process. In 1990, there were nine Latinos, and 17 women in the California statehouse, for instance. Today, there are 26 and 34 respectively.
"There are more teachers, doctors, small business people in government now bringing the voices of ordinary people into the process where they were absent before," says Dan Schnur, a political analyst at the University of California, Berkeley, and an advisor to the "No on 45" campaign.
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But detractors decry the lack of experience, and loss of institutional memory needed to tackle such complex questions as utility deregulation or understand California's massive $100 billion budget. And they say the relative inexperience of legislators puts them at a disadvantage compared to both career lobbyists, and the executive branch.
"Now they have people with just two years experience in state government trying to figure out how to make up a $12 billion deficit," says Karen Caves, spokeswoman for the Prop. 45 campaign.
But political observers say the new measure is interesting because it doesn't really throw out term limits, it only extends them in certain cases. In any case, both sides are playing up the compromise to their own benefit.
"This could be viewed cynically as an end run around term limits for use in situations only where a particular candidate is extremely popular," says Mark DiCamillo, an analyst for the California Poll. "Or it can be viewed as just a tinkering or fine-tuning within the basic limitations of term limits that citizens want. Both sides are seeing what they want to."
Polls themselves show a bit of ambivalence by voters. In a recent California Public Policy Institute Poll, for instance, only 3 out of 10 voters said they felt their own legislators would be more effective if they were allowed to serve four more years. But polls by the Los Angeles Times, the Field Poll and others, show that voters are also open to the idea of extending the options of certain key politicians.
"The proponents of this are trying to sell it as a term-limit initiative, but it's a scam put on the ballot by a bunch of legislators and the powerful special-interest sponsors to undo the will of the voters," says Stacy Rumenap, president of US Term Limits. "You don't hear the voters themselves say term limits aren't working."
Others, however, say New York City's experience with term limits illustrates a downside of such laws. "Many people thought it was unfortunate that Giuliani had to be forced out at such a critical time for his city, and so you do see some sentiment that there ought to be some give in the system," says Mark Baldassare, an analyst for the California Public Policy Institute.
In recent years, more headline space has been devoted to the implementation of campaign-finance laws, rather than term limits, as a means of government reform. But detractors of Prop. 45 say that if the measure is passed then it could bring more so-called "soft money" into the political process. "Soft money" is money given to both parties but not earmarked for specific candidates, and thus not subject to contribution limits.
Observers say that potential donors to statewide elections here could give huge amounts to candidates to pay professional signature-gathering companies to extend their stays in office.
Proponents of Prop. 45 worry that those going to the polls March 5 will be slightly skewed to the conservative side since there is a three-way race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. "This is a primary race where more conservative Republicans will be going to the polls than Democrats," notes Trudy Schafer, program director for the League of Women Voters. "That could hurt the cause of Prop. 45."