“Throw the rascals out!” That was the rallying cry for Prop 140, the 1990 term limits initiative. Aimed at entrenched career politicians and the special interests supposedly keeping them in office, Prop 140 passed in a landslide of indignation. State legislators are now limited to eight years in the Assembly and six in the Senate.
Yes, Einstein, that adds up to fourteen years, but not many serve that long. The Senate is only half the size of the Assembly, and Senate vacancies occur less frequently, so most Assembly members are squeezed out of Sacramento after just six years, never reaching the Senate.
In the first dozen years after Prop 140 passed there was a fair amount of chamber switching in both directions, as termed-out Assembly members and Senators grabbed each others’ seats. So in the early days of term limits, a fair portion of the Assembly had prior legislative experience in the State Senate. But no longer. Only four current members of the Assembly have ever served in the Senate. The other seventy-five (there’s one vacancy) have been in Sacramento five years or less. In other words, the Assembly is filled with inexperience.
Most telling, the Assembly leadership is essentially a bunch of unseasoned sophomores. Speaker Fabian Nunez ascended to his position after just four years in the Legislature, as did Speaker Pro Tempore Sally Lieber. The Majority and Minority Leaders assumed their posts after just two years in the Legislature.
I don’t know about you, but is scares me to put a state with 37 million people and a twelve-figure budget in the hands of policy-makers with so little experience. Imagine how long it would take you to understand the nuances of budgeting, taxation, water, energy, environment, prisons, health care, education, transportation, agriculture, criminal and civil law, and so forth. Can you do it in two years? Guess what: that’s not good enough. You can’t just understand these subjects; you have to master them and lead state policy. After all, in two years you may have a leadership role.
How do they do it? How do our green Assembly members figure out how to make policy and laws with such insufficient background? They can’t always rely on staff—Prop 140 slashed legislative staff levels to the bone. So they rely on those with true experience: lobbyists and think tanks. And they might also listen a teensy weensy bit to campaign contributors. This is government by special interest, and it’s the exact opposite of what voters wanted when they passed Prop 140.
Because the situation in the Assembly is so dangerous, we must adjust term limits. Prop 93 will reduce the limit from 14 years to 12, and allow all 12 years to be served in the same house. The 12-year limit means there still will be no career state legislators. But allowing it all in one chamber means the Assembly Speaker will probably have eight or ten years’ experience instead of four, making it far less likely that leadership will be encountering important issues for the first time. Prop 93 means more continuity, more long-term policy, and more structural coherence to our government.
Opponents of this measure correctly point out that it “grandfathers” current members, allowing them to stay in their current chamber 12 years regardless of any prior service in the other chamber. This could lead to some current legislators serving 18 or even 20 years. They argue that we should leave Prop 140’s term limits in place so we can get rid of the current, unsavory leadership, set to be termed out this fall. To this I say, “Bah.” If you think that the replacements for Nunez or Senate President Don Perata would be any less unsavory (more savory?), you’re deluding yourself. Virtually all legislators, including any new leaders, are highly partisan animals due to their non-competitive districts. But that’s a story for another day.
Pete Rates the Propositions is non-partisan and unaffiliated with any candidate or organization. Pete remains obstinately undoctrinaire, considering each ballot proposition on its merits. He is proud to have offended (and persuaded) voters of all political stripes. This originally appeared on Pete Rates the Propositions and is republished with the permission of the author.