Commentary

In Case of Emergency, Blame Term Limits

By Patrick Basham
September 15, 2003

Are term limits to blame for California’s recall election? After a protracted budget standoff that sustained the recall campaign, critics contend that the state’s term limits legislation is coming home to roost. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, editorializes that California’s budget debacle was “a legacy of the…term limits law” passed in 1990. The paper’s editors further say that a lack of budgetary experience in the state legislature “crippled that body’s effectiveness.”

The inexperience-attack falls flat, however, because Californians know that it was the experienced, but spendthrift, politicians — not the new kids on the block — who blew the lid off the state budget during the late 1990s.

Embattled Gov. Gray Davis is the poster boy for “tax and spend” career politicians, having begun his political ascent way back in the 1970s as ultra-liberal Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff. The Cato Institute’s “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors: 2002” awarded Davis an F grade and characterized his first term as “economically destructive.”

The state legislature in Sacramento is not home to a group of naïve political rookies, guide maps in hand, stumbling around the Capitol’s hallowed halls looking for the washrooms. After all, state Senate Majority Leader John Burton, Davis’s partner-in-fiscal-crime, was first elected to the state legislature in 1964. No wonder the pre-term limited Senate was referred to as the “geriatric ward of California.”

California’s current crop of 40 state senators possesses an average eight years experience as state legislators. If the budgetary process is too complex for them to figure out, the source of the problem may be the sea of government programs and regulations through which they must wade.

During his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, Davis claimed that he would be the best-trained governor in California history. Evidently, it took all of Davis’s decades of public service training and experience to teach him that higher taxes were the `solution’ to this year’s gaping $38 billion deficit.

It’s hard to imagine how inexperienced legislators could possibly have come up with so enlightened or original a fiscal plan — thankfully, they could not. Instead, the protracted nature of this year’s budget negotiations largely reflected the refusal of a sufficient number of “inexperienced” legislators to go along with the job-killing tax hikes sought by Davis and his “experienced” legislative supporters.

This year’s budgetary process was not the first to suggest a positive relationship between term limits and fiscal conservatism. For example, three years ago California’s term-limited legislature passed the largest nominal tax cut in the nation and the largest state tax cut in a generation.

Critics persist in measuring actual term limited legislatures against idealized, non-term limited, professional legislatures. It is assumed that these professional legislatures attract only hard-working, selfless, experienced, knowledgeable, and independent souls. These professional legislatures collegially produce reams of useful, moderate legislation both on time and under budget.

The reality of the average professional legislature is quite different. The term limits movement succeeded in California because the professional legislature served the state so poorly. Under a permanent class of incumbents, California was in crisis mode on many social and economic fronts. The fundamental problem for term limits’ critics is that they are unable to explain how term limits have actually hurt California taxpayers, many of whom recall an unimpressive pre-term limit past.

Therefore, despite a steady onslaught of negative commentary emanating from the political and media establishments, public opinion remains solidly in favor of term limits. Last year, California voters decisively rejected a ballot initiative that would have severely weakened existing term limits legislation. While incomplete, Californians agree that their term limits experiment is proving largely successful.

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