SACRAMENTO – Eleven years after Californians adopted term limits, a new ballot battle is shaping up over whether voters should be able to give their state legislators extra time in office.
About a dozen interest groups, urged on by some key lawmakers, are trying to put an initiative on next March’s ballot to allow legislators to run for up to four more years if enough voters sign petitions supporting the move.
Term-limit advocates call the initiative a deceptive attempt by lawmakers to weaken the tough term limits voters approved in 1990. Initiative supporters say it’s a “modest adjustment” that would improve operations at the Capitol.
“I don’t think the term-limit people have to look at this as some radical attack; it isn’t,” said one initiative supporter, Walter Zelman, president of the California Association of Health Plans.
Currently, lawmakers can serve up to three two-year terms in the Assembly and up to two four-year terms in the state Senate, although those limits can be stretched if someone is elected initially to fill a midterm vacancy.
The initiative would allow a senator to seek one more term and an Assembly member to run for two more if enough voters in their districts signed petitions backing the extension.
The number of signatures would have to equal at least 20 percent of the votes cast for that office in the previous general election, a total initiative supporters say will be difficult to reach.
Term limits, according to the initiative’s preamble, have “reinvigorated the political process,” but the proposed measure would let “a few specially skilled and popular lawmakers” finish important work.
But Paul Jacob, national director of U.S. Term Limits, contends that “virtually every legislator will be able to get those signatures” because of their ability to raise money to pay signature collectors.
“They are slicker and smarter to try to do it through the initiative process, but the folks behind this are all the same legislators who have been against term limits from day one,” he said.
Karen Caves, a spokeswoman for the initiative’s sponsors, says the measure is “really about restoring local control to voters.”
“If the people want it, they can have it,” she said. “If they don’t want it they don’t have to have it.”
Caves says Howard Owen, president of the Consumer Federation of California and a member of the board of the Congress of California Seniors, is “really the source” of the initiative
But Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, said he asked Owens and others involved in the campaign to spearhead it. He also said he provided the campaign with opinion polls and other research.
“The only people opposing this publicly don’t live in the state, don’t work in the state and earn their living keeping term limits campaigns in place,” Perata said.
Assemblyman Herb Wesson, the Culver City Democrat who is apparently in line to become Assembly speaker, told the Los Angeles Times that he had recommended that his supporters give money to the campaign.
“Legislative leaders want to see this happen but they don’t want their fingerprints on it,” said one potential supporter of the initiative who asked not to be identified.
So far those backing the measure include some of the Capitol’s most power lobbying groups — the California Medical Association, Consumer Attorneys, the California Retailers Association and the California Correctional Peace Officers, according to Caves.
“There is a broadbased coalition of folks involved — consumers, seniors, law enforcement and business,” Caves said.
Term limit critics say the limits, particularly those for the Assembly, don’t give lawmakers time to build up the experience they need to master complicated issues or leadership skills.
“They have to be there longer if they are going to make a more significant contribution,” said Bill Powers, legislative director for the Congress of California Seniors.
“It’s just a pity that in too many cases where experience has been built up to have that thrown away.”
Jacob pooh-poohs the experience argument, saying, “The president of the United States can serve two terms. Is being a state senator that much tougher than being president of the United States?
“The longer people are in office, for the most part, the more they tend to favor what special interests in Sacramento want instead of what the folks back in their districts want.”