Paul Jacob

Maine legislators made a big mistake with the term-limits-weakening measure they referred to voters last Tuesday: they forgot to lie.

They didn’t cheat or steal, either. The measure’s ballot title pretty much admitted that, if passed, it would loosen the current term limits. It read straightforwardly: “Do you favor extending term limits for Legislators from 4 to 6 terms?”

That phrase “extending term limits” isn’t quite right — it’s terms that were to be extended, not limits — but the final phrase of the title set it all straight. And that’s to the credit of Maine legislators. It is also why the measure went down in flames — 67 to 33 percent. Just like previous attempts in Arkansas and Montana in 2004, and in California back in 2002, voters said no. Loudly.

After the vote, Jennie Browser, with the National Conference of State Legislatures, told USA Today, “It doesn’t matter how many academic studies show term limits don’t do much good. Voters like term limits.”

Of course, the “studies” Browser references consist largely of compiled complaints from pols, lobbyists and insiders. The public feels their pain, certainly. But approvingly.

No doubt that’s why, way out west, California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and their respective political hacks are not essaying anything so silly as honesty. Instead, they’re embracing the big lie. They are selling their measure, Proposition 93, as a way to make California term limits even tougher.

The measure mimics the successful sleight-of-hand performed by an ensemble cast of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, and the city’s politicians in 2006, when they tricked voters into weakening the city’s term limits. These tricksters conned voters into believing the measure would actually impose tougher limits. The lie paid off.

Promoters worded Prop 93 to suggest that it would reduce how long legislators could serve in office. In truth, however, it would actually weaken the current term limits considerably. The ballot summary itself, written by political gadfly and California Attorney General Jerry Brown, mirrors the language used by the measure’s powerful proponents, emphasizing that total service in both Assembly and Senate would be reduced from 14 to twelve years.

Yet, what the measure really does is double how long people can serve in the Assembly, from six to twelve years, and loosen the Senate limit from eight years to twelve. It turns out that a mere 8 percent of legislators serve the full time in both chambers. So the reduction overall from 14 to twelve years is insignificant, while the dramatic increase in tenure in each chamber (100 percent in the Assembly and 50 percent in the Senate) would encourage leadership entrenchment and the re-creation of a seniority system.

Which is exactly why the legislative leadership is pushing Prop 93 so hard. Well, that and Prop 93’s most immediate impact: It allows Speaker Núñez and Senator Perata (as well as 40 other colleagues) to break the limits they face next November and stay in office. In fact, under a carefully designed loophole, Perata would be able to serve 16 years in the legislature under his new version of “term-limit toughness.”

This new chance at boss rule has found enthusiastic support . . . among the usual suspects. A bevy of special interests with business before the California legislature has funded the measure with beaucoup bucks. This is the very same cast of characters opposed to term limits all along, but willing for now to pretend they are for “reformed” limits the better to eventually strangle the concept.

Even Prop 93’s path to the ballot has been fraught with controversy. At first, it appeared the petition effort had fallen short of voter signatures. But as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “A pair of Bay Area election officials said Wednesday that mistakes by their offices — not political pressure — forced them to revise the signature count in the barely successful effort to instantly qualify a term limits initiative for the February ballot.”

The February 5th ballot is critical, of course, because any other ballot would be too late to give these 42 otherwise termed-out incumbents the ability to hold onto power past 2008.

A recent poll commissioned by U.S. Term Limits found 64 percent of voters oppose weakening the limits in the House and Senate — but that’s only if they understand that those limits are being weakened. Something the ballot title doesn’t tell them.

Term limits supporters will have to find the financial resources to tell California voters, so they can stop the politicians.

It won’t be easy to overcome the political big shots and their slick and tricky campaign. But this week, as Maine voters were trouncing their legislature’s assault on term limits, California State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner announced he would lead the campaign against Prop 93, contributing $1.5 million to the effort, which the national group, U.S. Term Limits has agreed to match.

The voters of California may just learn the truth about Proposition 93 and once again get in the way of their politicians’ best laid schemes.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.