Although Proposition 93 is labeled as “Limits on Legislators’ Terms in Office,” its larger effect will allow members of the California Assembly and Senate to serve nearly twice as long in their current seats.
Prop. 93, while shortening legislators’ overall time in office from 14 to 12 years, lets them serve their entire term in one house. Currently legislators are allowed six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate, for a total of 14 years.
This complicated calculation has placed most APA state politicians in a catch-22.
Term limits have typically opened doors for APA and other minority candidates. But ask Wilma Chan or Carol Liu, two assemblywomen who termed out in 2006, about these restrictions, and you will find that strict limits also mean that experienced APA lawmakers can get kicked out regardless of their records.
“Six years is too short, but forever is too long,” said Assemblyman Mike Eng, who backs the measure.
Freshman legislators like Eng, whose term in the Assembly would have ended in 2012, could stay until 2018 if the initiative passes.
The Legislature’s leadership has the most at stake with this measure. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who would normally be termed out this year, could serve three more two-year terms under Prop. 93. Passage of the proposition would also buy Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who is also facing his final term, four more years.
While APA lawmakers would serve longer terms in one chamber if this passes, if it fails, there will be a leadership reshuffle, opening up plenty of opportunities for APAs to move into the most powerful legislative positions.
Most APA legislators are publicly backing Prop. 93, particularly after heavy pressure from Nunez and Perata. But privately, many are also looking to advance their political careers should Prop. 93 fail.
Eng, who said budget woes have him focused on issues more pressing than the possibility of an open speaker seat, thinks the APA community needs more time to get to know their elected officials.
“If you had a doctor that you liked a lot and somebody said after six years you’d have to get a new doctor, you’d think that was crazy,” he said.
Strict term limits seem unfair to Eng, who succeeded his wife, the termed-out Judy Chu.
“We were complaining that there were no opportunities for Asian Americans to get elected,” Eng said. “Then we allow them to be elected, but we don’t allow them time to do their jobs well.”
Opponents say the initiative unfairly lengthens the terms of current lawmakers by allowing incumbents to serve 12 years, whether or not they have served in another house.
For instance, Sen. Leland Yee — who served four years in the Assembly before being elected to the Senate in 2006 — would see his time in the Legislature stretch to 2018.
Supporters of the measure say six or eight years in one house is hardly enough time for lawmakers to gain the expertise needed for good policy-making.
“When you’re a freshman,” said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who is serving her first term, “you don’t know who’s who, how to get things done or even where the bathroom is.”
Ma pointed out that 12 out of the 34 Assembly committees are chaired by first-year legislators. That kind of inexperience, she said, leads to problems such as stalled budgets.
Some argue that longer terms in one house mean less dependence on lobbyists, because lawmakers would have the expertise and clout to say no to them.
“If a lobbyist knows that you have another eight or 10 years, they would have to deal with you; they can’t really wait you out,” said Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who would be termed out in 2010 if the measure fails. “If you only have two years, it’s easier for them to stymie things.”
Lieu said Prop. 93 strikes a balance by letting lawmakers gain experience, while still keeping term limits that let fresh faces enter the political field.
“Rapid turnover can lead to institutional damage,” Lieu said. “More than half of Assembly Democrats were elected in the last election. That’s just a strange way of running one of the largest economies in the world.”