Thousands of dollars spent to alter state term limits

The Associated Press
Saturday August 18, 2001

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers, corporations and special interest groups have poured more than $800,000 into a drive to change California’s term limit laws to let some lawmakers stay longer in office. 

Legislatures in 11 out of 19 states with term limits tried this year to change or eliminate them. But California will be the first to ask voters to peel back the bounds they set for elected officials 11 years ago. 

If it works here, experts say, it could work in other states where doubts have arisen about the effectiveness of limiting politicians’ tenures. 

“Everyone’s going to be watching California, just as they did a decade ago,” said Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. 

The California initiative’s supporters had collected 1 million signatures Friday, mostly using paid signature gatherers, organizer Howard Owens said. To qualify for the ballot, the group needs to collect signatures of at least 670,816 registered voters by Oct. 1, but the group wanted to gather more than 1 million to in case some aren’t valid. 

If the signatures are accepted, voters in this state will decide March 5 whether to modify the term limits law approved by 52 percent of voters in 1990. 

Already, it’s clear California’s term limits fight will resemble the 1990 battle. 

It will be expensive. The anti-limits group had raised $812,000 and spent more than $1 million in the first six months of this year, campaign finance reports show. 

Top contributors included Ameriquest Capital Corp., an Orange, Calif.-based subprime lender; the top trial lawyers political action committee; and the Modesto-based E&J Gallo Winery, a major contributor to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. 

While hesitant to openly lend their names to an anti-limits movement, many legislators are backing it. State Sen. Don Perata and former Assemblyman Bruce Young, both Democrats, are leading it, while Democratic Sen. Betty Karnette, term limited in 2004, donated $20,000. 

Plus, the group received a $150,000 loan from a group called “Former Leaders for an Effective Government,” which has received donations from an array of state lawmakers. It will produce strange coalitions. The largest supporters of the initiative include liberal-leaning unions and conservative corporations: The Northern California Carpenters’ PAC has chipped in the same amount as the Chevron Corp. 

“There are other groups who ... are going to fight tooth and nail to stop this turning back of the clock,” Basham said. 

Washington-based U.S. Term Limits has poured millions of dollars into passing and protecting term limits laws nationwide. 

“Voters overwhelmingly support term limits,” said Stacie Rumenap, the group’s deputy director. “It is clear that this effort is being financed at the idea of politicians and special interests who hate term limits.” 

Owens disagrees, saying there are “a lot of people that are uncomfortable with having to kick out our best legislators when they are just really getting their feet on the ground and learning what the process is all about.” 

He and others point to the statewide electricity crisis that has rookie lawmakers grappling with complex issues to keep the lights on in California. Term limits supporters, however, say the deregulation law that caused the crisis was written by the last pre-limits Legislature in 1996. 

California lawmakers can now serve up to three two-year Assembly terms and up to two four-year terms in the Senate, although those limits can be stretched if someone is first elected to fill a midterm vacancy. 

The initiative would let a senator seek one more term and Assembly member two more if enough voters in their districts signed petitions backing the extension. 

The 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 hard to reach. Opponents, however, say well-connected legislators will have no problem paying signature collectors to reach that number. 

In some states, term limits have had mixed reviews. 

Many states have seen limits lead to more minorities and women being elected, said Jenny Drage, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Still, Drage said, legislatures are losing skilled leadership, which can hurt over the long run. 

Meanwhile, the initiative’s backers also have been criticized for the wording of their proposed ballot measure, whose preamble reads like a pro-term limits statement. 

That’s “a sneaky attempt to be a pro-term limits initiative,” Rumenap said. 

Owens, however, said voters will understand “we are not trying to do away with term limits. We are trying to get some exceptions to it.” 


On the Net: 

U.S. Term Limits at www.termlimits.org, The National Conference of State Legislatures website contains information about term limit legislation at http://www.ncsl.org, and the CATO Institute at http://www.cato.org/