Saturday, May 19, 2012




          The harm that California’s extremely short legislative term limits have done has never been more obvious and extreme than today.

          Here’s what happens because of Proposition 140, the 1990 ballot initiative that set strict limits of six years in office for members of the state Assembly and eight years for state senators and major statewide officials from the governor on down:

          Speakers of the Assembly, once the savviest of legislative veterans, are virtual rookies in office, young men (there have been two women, both very short-term speakers) who have achieved nothing in Sacramento beyond winning the votes of the majority of their party caucus. They never have time to establish an independent base either in fund-raising or any other aspect of the job, so they are dependent on labor unions, businesses and others who finance their campaigns and others. Not just dependent, but frequently craven.

          It’s not much better for leaders of the only slightly more stable state Senate.

          Term limits also spur all new legislators to begin immediately thinking about their next job, for holding public office can be addictive and once they’ve had one, most people want another. So they become complete toadies to the establishment of whichever party is theirs, rarely deviating from the party line.
Any who show some independence often are defeated in the very next primary election by those same party establishments. It’s a classic case of legislators having to go along to get along and assure themselves of a political future. Never mind what’s good for California.

          And yet, Proposition 140 remains one of the most popular laws on the books. Each of the several attempts to modify it just a little has gone down to smashing defeat.

        But there’s a new idea for change now before the voters, one that might solve a few of the problems term limits have plainly caused.

          This is Proposition 28 on the June 5 ballot .

          It’s a plan that would actually shorten the time anyone can stay in the Legislature, but extend the permissible stay in any one house. Very simply, the new limit would be 12 years in the Legislature, no matter which house one serves in.

          So an Assembly member could spend twice as much time there as now, if that’s what the voters decide, and a senator’s time could be 50 percent longer. But if politicians opted to stay that long in either house, they would not be able to move on to the other chamber when their terms are up. Rather, they’d have to go home or win a seat in Congress or run for statewide office or get some other job in the state capital. The Sacramento game of musical chairs might at least slow down.

          At the same time, lawmakers would at last have time to think about something other than their next offices. And since they would not be running for a new office, they’d have less need of party establishment support and thus might be somewhat more independent. One result might be some compromises of the sort common in the eras of Govs. Earl Warren, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan and even at times in the administrations of Pete Wilson and Gray Davis.

          One thing the somewhat longer limits on service in any one house will not do is allow anyone to achieve the kind of status that legendary past speakers like Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown attained. Each held the office much longer than 12 years.

          Unruh is a case in point for what extended one-house service could accomplish. Many of his seminal legislative achievements in areas affecting racial discrimination and the environment came when he’d been in the Assembly between five and 10 years. By the time he’d been there 12, he was thoroughly immersed in power politics and less purely in the public interest, initiating a system where campaign donors contributed to him and he doled out money to his favored candidates.

          That cemented his power until he chose to leave the Assembly and run for governor against Reagan in 1970, which proved a debacle.

          So these new limits would not be long enough to allow anyone to become another “Big Daddy.” But they would allow some continuity in solving problems, something lawmakers have been unable to do very well in the 22 years since term limits began.

          All of which means voting for Proposition 28 would probably be a good idea. The current system doesn’t work well, and a smallish tweak like this might be just enough to set things on a better path.

        Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated fourth printing. His email address is