Commentary

California Dreamin’? The Campaign to End Term Limits

By Patrick Basham
March 5, 2002

The most significant aspect of California’s primary today isn’t the intense battle between former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and businessman William Simon for the right to take on Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in November’s general election. Regardless of who competes with Davis, the quality of California public policy may be more affected by the result of a term limits ballot initiative.

If passed, Proposition 45 would present those state legislators about to be forced out of office by California’s term limits law with a probable stay of execution. The opportunity to extend one’s legislature tenure will be offered to those incumbents able to collect sufficient voter signatures within their district. The signature threshold is only 20 percent of the total of votes cast in the most recent election for that office and, courtesy of professional signature gathering outfits, should not prove too onerous a hurdle for the average well-funded incumbent to overcome. If an incumbent garners the required signatures, he or she would then stand for reelection in November.

Proposition 45 was placed on the primary ballot by a successful, and expensive, initiative petition drive of its own. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) spearheaded the petition effort. Revealingly, the pro-Prop 45 campaign was backed by the establishment media, Big Business, and many liberal organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, labor unions, the Sierra Club, and the League of Women Voters. In addition, the state Democratic Party contributed $3 million to the campaign.

Such highly organized, well-funded opposition has been typical of anti-term limits campaigns across the nation since states such as California first opted for term limits back in 1990. Term limits continue to be opposed by a majority of incumbent politicians. They are also opposed by a majority of the legislative staff, bureaucrats, journalists, and interest groups that depend on politicians for employment, patronage, sources and votes. Most special interest groups (especially large, heavily regulated corporations as well as unions that rely on government intervention in the labor market) view term limits as anathema to their interests.

Yet despite a steady onslaught of negative commentary emanating from the political and media establishments, public opinion remains solidly in favor of term limits. In a June 1999 poll, 73 percent of Californians agreed that term limits had been good for their state. In a June 200 poll 69 percent said they still approved of the original term limits initiative. Therefore, those opposed to term limits know that a frontal assault would be overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. The Los Angeles Times erroneously informed its readers that, “Californians can keep term limits and make them more realistic by voting yes on Proposition 45.” In fact, the anti-term limits forces are employing a back-door approach to end the Golden State’s term limits experiment.

Why do ordinary Californians continue to support term limits? While incomplete, the experiment has proven largely successful. Since term limits were first put into practice, California has experienced relatively crowded, competitive state primaries and general elections that see closer races, more incumbents defeated, and more candidates running for office. Both demographically and ideologically, the legislature is now far more representative of the California beyond the state Capitol.

Prior to term limits, California’s state Senate was referred to as the “geriatric ward of California.” Now, California’s legislature works more quickly than before term limits were put into practice, even going so far as to pass state budgets on time. There also appears to be a positive relationship between term limits and fiscal conservatism. In recent years, California’s term-limited “amateur” politicians managed to pass the largest nominal tax cut in the nation and the largest state tax cut in a generation.

Like a majority of term-limited states, California is experiencing a sophisticated, self-interested campaign to eviscerate its term limits law. The balance of the evidence, however, strongly endorses extending, rather than ending, the term limits experiment.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.