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Tim Myers: Myers Musing: Term limits or not? That is the question

Posted: August 7, 2010 4:20 p.m.
Updated: August 8, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

One of the great benefits of having young adult children in college includes the benefit of receiving their textbooks when they finish their classes (resale is a joke) and updating myself on the changes that occurred since my own college days.

In the break between fall and spring terms at California State University, Channel Islands, our daughter took the required political science course during the winter term at College of the Canyons, and I got to see what changed after 32 years.

The course covered the formation of the United States through a study of the history of the founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. However, the more fascinating book related to the second half of the course and a book written in 2005 concerning the rather unique and putatively dysfunctional governance system of California.

Twenty years ago, California enacted the most stringent legislative term limits in the nation, with Assembly members serving three two-year terms and state senators serving to two four-year terms. According to the author of the textbook, the primary drivers behind the push for term limits revolved around two Republican dreams.

First, Republicans knew they could get rid of longtime left-leaning and powerful Democratic Speaker Willy Brown. Also, Republicans held a dream of Republican majorities fueled by the seats vacated by termed-out Democrats. A third force thought term limits would work in favor of good government.

In the case of Santa Clarita, folks frustrated by the seeming invulnerability of incumbent council members mooted the possibility of introducing an initiative to require term limits on local elected offices.

A simple reason why: If Santa Clarita’s own version of Willy Brown in the minds of the opposition— one Councilman

Frank Ferry — serves out his fourth term, he will have participated in the governance of the city for nearly two-thirds of its total history and number himself, along with Mayor Laurene Weste, as the longest-serving councilmember.

An initiative to limit council members to two or three terms begins the process of finally extricating the hated incumbents.
The local initiative process requires the gathering of signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters (about 9,000 people) if the initiative appears on the ballot at the next regular election, or 15 percent of the registered voters (about 13,500 people) to call a special election, but one wonders if folks really want to enact term limits.

Let us take the case of California term limits 20 years on. Thus far, term limits achieved only one of the stated aims: The removal of Willy Brown from the Speaker’s chair.

Republican majorities did not materialize and people would laugh at anyone who stated that term limits resulted in “good government.”

What did term limits bring? The author of the book on California government asserted that term limits only brought a succession of unknown, anonymous legislators who could only concentrate on the next higher office they planned to run for, or the lobbying employment that would allow them to earn a living once termed out of office.

In short, their anonymity made them unaccountable to voters but their future plans made them entirely beholden to party functionaries, lobbyists for the industries for which they passed legislation or both. The author pointed out that the state government became so anonymous that none of the major network-affiliate television stations in Los Angeles or San Diego ran Sacramento bureaus before the election of celebrity Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As far as “throwing the bums out,” the apathy that powered entrenched incumbents to term after term left the choice of future nominees in the hands of party functionaries who lined up future candidates like dominoes. However, witness the chaos that will ensue in 2012 when Cameron Smyth terms out of his Assembly seat, Sen. George Runner sits on the Board of Equalization and a power struggle ensues for the Republican nomination for state Senate, made even more interesting by probable redistricting.

How badly did term limits perform? Congressman Tom McClintock, one of the few incumbents who supported term limits in 1990, now states publicly that term limits probably irreparably harmed the legislative institutions in California and contributed mightily to current structural issues that place the fiscal house in such disorder.

This sounds like the argument ender that would keep rational people from pursuing this solution in Santa Clarita.

 Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Myers’ Musings” appears Sundays in The Signal.

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