Term Limits Initiative: So What?

It's being touted as a feel-good political story. Labor and business interests, so divided on many issues, say term limits aren't working and have come together to "reform" them.

That reform? A June statewide ballot initiative that doesn't change very much about term limits.

Currently, a legislator can spend up to 6 years in the Assembly and 8 years in the state senate -- for a total of 14 years. The new reform, touted by people who don't like term limits, actually shortens the total time of possible service to 12 years. But it allows politicians to serve all that time in one house.


It's hard to understand why anyone would have strong feelings about this ballot initiative -- either way -- given the modesty of the change sought here. Among the arguments -- offered both by those in favor and opposed -- is that permitting people to stay in one house for 12 years will -- for better or for worse -- lead to less in the way of musical chairs, allow people to focus more on policy, empower legislative leaders and restore a seniority system of sorts.

Indeed, the initiative, Prop 28, is an example of the limits of consensus. In order to get labor and business interests on board, the initiative, which was supposed to be about lifting term limits, was watered down to the point that it tightens the overall term limits.

This is madness. But it's madness that newspaper editorial pages are embracing. Consider this editorial from the Mercury News backing the measure:

 "Term limits should be repealed," wrote the newspaper. "They have not improved the caliber of representation. Voters ought to be able to choose the best candidate, regardless of time served."

Good argument, but then the Mercury News pivots from there into what might only be called surrender: "But repeal is unrealistic, so reform is the next best thing."


Repeal is "unrealistic" because of polling, the god most observers of state politics seem to worship. But even the realistic measure that doesn't do much of anything is facing a tough battle. Wouldn't it be better -- smarter, or even, dare I say, realistic -- to pursue a measure that changes the law?

Or to put it another way: Since initiatives of all kinds are very difficult to pass, why bother trying to pass initiatives that won't make much difference?

A parting trivia question: do you know the last time that a majority of Californians, in public polls, approved of the job that the legislature was doing?

The month before term limits was approved by voters in 1990.

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