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Term Limit Reform: Prop 28 Would Increase Number of Terms Legislators May Serve

by Damon Eris, published


A new statewide survey from the Public Policy Institute of California finds broad support in favor of term limits for state legislators. The result is not surprising given that just 21% of likely voters in California approve of the way the state legislature is handling its job. Understandably, support for term limits extends to Proposition 28, known as the “Limits on Legislators” initiative. However, it appears that Prop 28 would actually loosen already existing term limits on the state's lawmakers.

The California Constitution currently limits State Senators to two four-year terms and State Assembly Members to three two-year terms, thereby allowing a given individual to serve a total of fourteen years in the state government. These limits were passed into law by voters in 1990 when they approved Proposition 140.

Proposition 28 will go before voters at the June primary elections. At first glance, the measure would appear to impose even more strict limits on the terms of state legislators. Consider the first line in the description of the initiative on the Secretary of State's website:

“Reduces the total amount of time a person may serve in the state legislature from 14 years to 12 years.”

The justifiable skeptical voter may ask: what's the catch? The description continues:

“Allows a person to serve a total of 12 years either in the Assembly, the Senate, or a combination of both.”

Under the current California Constitution, an individual could serve as long as 14 years in the state legislature if elected to the limit of three terms in the State Assembly and two terms in the State Senate. Californians for a Fresh Start, a coalition group in favor of the measure, states that it would address a loophole in the present law opened up by court decisions.

“The courts have opened up a loophole that allows politicians to serve up to nearly 17 years by filling partial term vacancies that don’t get counted as part of their limit. Prop. 28 reduces the lifetime limit to 12 years and closes that “17-year loophole” by imposing a strict limit based on the number of years served in the Legislature, not on the number of terms.”

Proposition 28 would indeed limit the “total amount of time a person may serve in the state legislature,” but at the same time it increases the number of terms an individual could serve in either the Assembly or Senate. For example, it would double the number of years a person could spend in the State Assembly (from six to twelve) and increase the number of years a Senator may sit by 50% (from eight to twelve). If Proposition 28 were to pass, a member of the State Assembly who had no intent to seek an office in the State Senate would be allowed to serve for six terms instead of three, while a member of the State Senate who had no desire to serve in the State Assembly would be allowed to serve for three terms instead of two.

In 2008, voters rejected Proposition 93, which would have allowed lawmakers to serve in the state government for up to twelve years.

Philip Blumel, president of US Term Limits, an organization that advocates for term limits nationwide, recently called Prop 28 a scam.

“The June 2012 ballot measure is so deceptive that many Californians will vote yes believing that the initiative actually strengthens California term limits . . . voters will be voting on a measure that will allow professional politicians to set up shop in Sacramento for twelve years in either the House or the Senate, re-establishing the same semi-permanent political fiefdoms the law was designed to prevent.”

Judging from the support for Proposition 28 found by the Public Policy Institute of California survey, voters may not yet be aware that the measure would actually loosen existing term limit laws.