Current System. As the result of voter initiative, the California legislature is subject to strict lifetime term limits. Citizens may serve 3 two-year terms in the 80 member lower house and 2 four-year terms in the 40 member State Senate.
Lifetime Ban. Interestingly, the initiative authors “U.S. Term Limits” intended the term limits be a limit on consecutive years of service rather than a “lifetime ban”. It was the lawyers representing the Legislature who argued in challenging the measure before the State Supreme Court that the plain language of the measure, regardless of the authors’ intent, created a lifetime limit of service. The Court ultimately agreed with this interpretation, but rejected the argument that a lifetime limit was unconstitutional.
History of the Legislature. California’s legislature was part time until the mid 1960’s when the first “professional” full time legislature began under the leadership of the legendary Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh. Along with full time members came professional staffing of committees and an era of strong legislative performance generally praised as a model for the nation for almost 20 years.
The catalyst for the public campaign for term limits was the high profile Speakership of California’s first black Speaker, Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. Brown. The outspoken and politically adroit Brown ascended to the Assembly’s highest position through bipartisan negotiations. Brown actually received more Republican than Democratic votes for Speaker. Though his private popularity with legislative Republicans remained high, publicly Brown was the target of increasingly vitriolic Republican campaigns as he consolidated his position with Democrats by creating a stable Democratic majority through a sophisticated and effective political operation.
The term limit initiative was the crescendo of this anti-Brown movement which piggy backed on U.S. Term Limits national campaign to bring term limits to state legislatures and to the United States Congress.
Current debate. Term limits have come under much criticism of late, even from prominent former supporters of the term limit initiative. Many observers from both parties blame California’s current financial difficulties in part on term limits. Others take the view that the term limits simply failed to do enough to limit the power of the legislature and call now for the creation of a part time legislature.
Proposed changes. Suggestions have been made for everything from outright repeal, to simply lifting the lifetime provisions so as to conform the law to its authors’ original intent. In February of 2008 the Legislature placed a term limit amendment on the ballot. The proposal narrowly lost in a heavily contested election before a low turnout electorate.
The Legislative proposal would have replaced the current limits with provisions that would limit service to a total of 12 years in the Legislature regardless of which house in which the years were served. The theory was that allowing for longer service in one house would reduce the musical chairs characteristic of the current rules and allow time for expertise to be developed before members were “termed out”. Politically, the proposal was believed to be easier to sell to voters based on the notion that, theoretically, it would actually reduce the total number allowable years served from 14 years (6 in the Assembly and 8 in the Senate) to 12 years.
Many critics have suggested that this Legislative term limit proposal was fatally flawed because it attempted to extend the terms of sitting members. California Forward is currently promoting essentially the same measure with these incumbent provisions removed.
Others have suggested a more comprehensive reform, combining campaign finance reform with term limit reform. This plan would first ban non-election year fundraising. Then, repeal the lifetime ban, limit service in the Assembly to 3 four-year terms, and in the Senate to 2 six-year terms.
Supporters argue that creating an extended period of public service during which elected officials are prohibited from fundraising activities is more likely to improve the Legislature’s performance.