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Opponents To Prop 28 For Term Limits Claim Ballot Language Is Misleading

Aired 5/23/12 on KPBS News.

When you look at your ballot on June 5, the description of Proposition 28 seems simple enough. But opponents claim the language for the state ballot measure to change term limits is misleading.

When you look at your ballot on June 5, the description of Proposition 28 seems simple enough.

The California State Capitol in Sacramento.
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Above: The California State Capitol in Sacramento.

"Reduces the total amount of time a person may serve in the state legislature from 14 years to 12 years," the state ballot measure reads. "Allows a person to serve a total of 12 years either in the Assembly, the Senate, or a combination of both."

But opponents claim the language for the measure is misleading.

Jon Fleischman, a former vice chairman of the California Republican Party who writes the blog flashreport.org, argues the ballot doesn’t mention the fact that currently a legislator can serve six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. He said Proposition 28 is actually an increase in term limits in disguise, because it would allow legislators to serve 12 years in one house.

"Californians have a long history of supporting term limits in our state legislature, and frankly we don't believe that anything's happened to cause that to suddenly change," he said. "But rather, what has happened is that former Attorney General Jerry Brown, who of course is now governor, put a misleading title and summary on the measure."

In California, the attorney general writes the title and summary that appears on the ballot.

"The voters have an expectation that an attorney general, when they put a title and summary on the ballot, are going to be fair and objective about the way they do it," Fleischman said. "But the reality is Jerry Brown has always been an opponent of term limits, as you can expect from a career politician, and he slanted the title and summary."

But Trudy Schafer, senior director for the California League of Women Voters, which supports the measure, said she sees no merit in opponents’ claims.

"It's hard for me to understand where the opponents are coming from on that," she said. "The non-partisan trusted legislative analyst in the state ballot pamphlet treats it as a very simple measure and that's what we think it is.”

Instead, Schafer only sees the good things she says the measure will do.

“The advantage of those 12 years is that a legislator can serve in the most effective way, either part in the Assembly and part in the Senate, or all in the Assembly or all in the Senate," she said. "And it would allow them to build up the expertise that is so sorely missing now.”

Vlad Kogan, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, wrote a report last year that found ballot language can influence election outcomes. But, he found, exposure to campaign information, especially endorsements from big interest groups, shrinks the impact of a ballot measure's language.

Supporters of Proposition 28 have raised $2.2 million with donations from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Pacific Gas & Electric and Majestic Realty, a real estate development company that wants to build a football stadium in the City of Industry. Opponents raised $150,000 with donations from the Liberty Initiative Fund and Howard Rich, a New Yorker who chairs Americans for Limited Government.

Term limits were first passed by California voters in 1990. Kogan recently told KPBS part of the campaign at the time focused on Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a powerful Democrat who nicknamed himself "Ayatollah of the Assembly." Republicans wanted him out of office, so the term limit issue became entangled with partisan politics.

In 2008, a similar ballot measure was defeated by voters. But that measure would have applied to current legislators, so it was seen as a "backroom deal" to allow current lawmakers to serve longer terms.

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