On the night of October 7, 1990, Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein faced off in the one and only TV debate of a fierce campaign for governor.
At the time, Feinstein was surging in the polls, but Wilson stopped her momentum cold that night, with a surprise endorsement of a controversial ballot initiative to enact term limits for state lawmakers.
“The California Legislature has deteriorated markedly,” the Republican argued. “I don’t know how patient you expect people to be — but I think they are running out of patience.”
His Democratic rival responded that she did not believe that “term limits make basic change,” adding that “you don’t have term limits on lobbyists.”
Turns out she was right.
Twenty years after voters approved the nation’s most restrictive term-limits law, and elected Wilson California’s 36th governor, a new study by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) concludes the fundamental goals of Proposition 140 have not been met.
Despite claims that term limits represented a sweeping reform that would upset the clubby culture of career politicians in Sacramento, curb the influence of lobbyists, and usher in an era of commonsense, just-folks legislating, the L.A.-based good government group found that almost nothing has changed:
“The primary goal of the term-limits movement was to create a ‘citizen legislature’ of members who would presumably be more closely in touch with the electorate than a ‘professional legislature of career politicians,’” the study says. “Term limits have not reached this goal in California.”
Prop. 140 sponsors invoked in their campaign the values of Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman consul who heeded a public call to lead the people at a time of tribal warfare and, having vanquished the nation’s enemies, quietly returned to his farm.
Alas, the spirit of Cincinnatus is missing in action in the Capitol.
For starters, most of those arriving in Sacramento are already politicians, not coming from private industry, but from taxpayer-funded, elected or appointed local government jobs. Current legislators, not surprisingly, have less state political experience than before term limits, but the ratio of those from local government has soared — from 28 percent pre-Prop. 140 among assemblymembers to 68 percent since, and from 35 percent to 70 percent for the Senate.
Also, among pre-Prop. 140 lawmakers, 60 percent of assemblymembers and 30 percent of senators kept working in the public sector once leaving office; post-140, the same portion from the Assembly — 60 percent — stay on a government payroll, while a larger fraction of those leaving the Senate — 40 percent — do so than previously.
Far from returning to the farm, these alleged aspiring sons of Cincinnatus are now less likely to do so: Before limits, 32 percent of ex-assemblymembers went to the private sector, compared to 24 percent today, while only 30 percent of ex-senators do so, compared to 46 percent who took private-sector jobs before term limits.
“Term limits, in other words, have converted the state legislature into a ‘farm team’ of potential candidates for other public offices,” the study says. “Most termed-out legislators do not beat their political spears into plowshares and return to the civilian sector. Instead, they simply seek other positions in the political arena … a form of political musical chairs for governmental office.”
More troubling, for those who want term limits to oppose special interests, the impact has been the opposite: “to increase lobbyist influence over the policy process.”
“Inexperienced new legislators rely on lobbyists for policy information when they are unable to obtain information from other members or their staffs,” the CGS found, citing a National Conference of State Legislatures study with similar conclusions: “Term limits have increased the power of lobbyists over the California Legislature.”
California voters rejected two previous efforts to relax Prop. 140. At a time of widespread anger at Sacramento, however, they recently approved two other major political reforms — changing the state election and redistricting processes.
In 2012, labor and business groups will sponsor yet another measure to amend term limits, no doubt citing the new report to argue that Prop. 140 has been more cause than cure of Capitol dysfunction.
You can find the complete Center for Governmental Studies report on term limits on the Web at tinyurl.com/4487v78.