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The State Budget Mess -- Continued

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

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