Debra J. Saunders

When California voters rejected five measures on the May 19 special election ballot, but passed a sixth measure that barred legislative pay raises in budget deficit years, the message to Sacramento was clear: Voters did not like what Sacramento had to offer.

I thought that the 1990 term-limit measure that restricted Assembly members to three two-year terms and state Senate members to two four-year terms would produce better representation in Sacramento. I thought term-limited lawmakers would pass better budgets. Instead, legislators have passed budgets later than ever and more gimmicky each year -- until gimmicks no longer could hide the gaps between income and spending.

The state budget mess has prompted me to rethink term limits. Maybe it's not a plus when roughly one-third of Assembly members and one-half of state senators are no longer eligible for re-election.

State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, believes the answer is for voters to pass his open-primary measure on the June 2010 ballot. Primary a la Maldonado would pit the top two vote-getters -- even members of the same party -- against each other in the general election.

Under the system now, Maldonado explained, Democrats have to woo the hard left to win their party's primary; Republicans likewise have to win the hard right -- with the result that most lawmakers are "working very hard making 13 percent of their electorate happy." But if voters chose between the top two vote-getters, lawmakers would have to reach out to all constituents, not just to their party's overly influential base.

I called Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies -- my go-to guy on good government -- and he suggested that I rethink my rethinking on term limits. Stern referred me to his center's 2007 report "Termed Out: Reforming California's Legislative Term Limits." It found that term limits brought fresh faces to Sacramento and reduced the potential for corruption -- but suggested longer term limits to enhance legislators' expertise.

Rather than term limits, Stern blames the two-thirds vote needed to pass a budget for the state's fiscal woes. He also faulted voters' reluctance to make shared sacrifices. Look at President Obama, Stern added: "Cutting taxes and raising spending. What does that tell people? You can have it all."

Besides, every time I might go for longer term limits, state lawmakers cook up some underhanded scheme like last year's Proposition 93, which would have extended terms to 12 years, while selling it as a tougher measure. Such dishonesty cannot be rewarded with a yes vote.

But if voters think they were voting against Sacramento in May, Stern noted, they should notice that the problem is not "just the people who are there -- because you're bringing in new people all the time and they're not doing any better than the people they're replacing."

Maybe the problem isn't term limits, but voters in a state where some oppose spending limits, others oppose higher taxes, but all agree they should not have to compromise.

I've heard from voters who saw their no-on-everything stance in May as a repudiation of politicians who haven't gotten the job done -- odd, as passage of the May measures would have encouraged compromise.

In May, we got the government we deserved -- and it still wasn't good enough for us.

Debra J. Saunders

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