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KPBS Midday Edition

Prop 28: Should We Change Term Limits In Sacramento?

Vlad Kogan Term limits
Prop 28 Will Modify Term Limits
Guests: Thad Kousser, political scientist, UC San Diego Vlad Kogan, PhD candidate, UC San Diego

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. We continue our coverage of issues on the June primary ballot with a focus on state proposition 28. It's a proposal that would change California's term limit law, are cutting down the overall time that state legislatures can stay in office, but giving them a little more time in one elected position. Joining me to explain prop 28 and talk about its pros and cons are my guests, Thad Kousser is UC San Diego professor of political science, he supporters prop 28. Welcome to the show. KOUSSER: Thanks for having me. CAVANAUGH: Vlad Kogan is a PhD. Student at UC San Diego. And he'll be talking about term limits in general. Welcome back. KOGAN: It's good to be here. CAVANAUGH: And we contacted those who were opposed to prop 28, but they were not available. Thad, how would it change term limits for state legislatures? KOUSSER: It lets legislators spend all their time in Sacramento in one house. If they can keep getting elected by the voters in their district. Instead of having to spend six years in the assembly, then you got to look around for your next place to go, maybe you can move up to the Senate, you could spend 12 years all in one house if you keep winning elections. The second thing it does, it takes down the total number of years you get in Sacramento from 14 years down to 12 years. This is a compromise. They move in opposite directions, and the idea is that since prop 28 is going to give some legislators a longer time to get on one committee and specialize and get to know that area, voters who want sort of the new fleshing of ideas and new faces in Sacramento would get a shortening in a length of term limits overall. CAVANAUGH: Is the idea that the 14 year term limit that exists now doesn't work for two terms in the Senate; is that right? KOUSSER: Well, the idea is that California's version of term limit, which are the tightest in the country, haven't delivered on what voters wanted. Voters wanted new people coming to Sacramento with new ideas and energy. Of but by the time they get there, they're immediately looking around for the next place to go. They're hopping from committee to committee, looking for the next office to run for, maybe a job as a lobbyist, and they're not specializing in one area and one committee and doing the work for one set of voters. CAVANAUGH: And we've seen what you're talking about in that someone who gets elected to the assembly, instead of perhaps staying there, if they want to continue a political career, they will think about moving to another political office sometimes in the Senate in California. KOUSSER: They run for the Senate, they run for City Council or county supervisors. Some will run for a Lt. Governor, some are trying to get jobs just about everywhere. Just about 90% of these folks who are termed out go somewhere else in office. They're spending all their time in office looking for that next step rather than doing what voters sent them to do, because the California term limits law doesn't give them a chance to do that. This would give them a dozen years to do that. CAVANAUGH: Vlad, give us a little history of the term limit movement in California. What was the idea behind term limits? KOGAN: Great question. I think you have to separate the idea from, I think, what was the realistic expectations of the folks that were pushing term limits. I think the basic idea, and folks like Thad who have done research on this can probably speak to this better than I can, but the idea is that for some reason that I personally can't understand, there's a belief amongst voters that we want people who are like us. We want citizen legislators, people that go to office for a couple years but have real jobs, and after spending a couple years in office, they come back and live the same lives as we do. And we haven't had that in California. And the reality is that most people who go into politics see that as a career, and they stay in politic fair while. In the 1990s when this passed in California, amongst the public, there was a desire to move to the citizen legislator model where we have lawmakers who are more like us, there is an expectation that having term limits would create opportunities for minorities, for women to go into office, and that it would create more competitive elections. There was concerns that incumbents are getting reelected, and if we can't defeat them in elections, let's limit how long they can stay in office. CAVANAUGH: Thad, didn't the term limit law have an awful lot to do with the career of willy brown? KOUSSER: Yeah, this was the way to get him out of office. He became a poster child for things that a lot of people thought were wrong with the legislature in the 1980s. He was in charge as speaker for almost 15 years, seemed to have too much power centralized in one person, and because of that, voters voted for term limits as much as a way to get willy brown out as a way to change the California legislature. CAVANAUGH: Which offices are governed by term limits in California? KOGAN: At the state level, we have term limits in the legislator. So if you are elected to the assembly, you can serve up to three 2-year terms, then you can run for office in the Senate, which has about half as many seat, then you can serve up to two four-year terms. And there's a variety of other term limits. The governor has limits on his terms, and the county Board of Supervisors are all governed by term limits. None of those are going to be affected by this measure. CAVANAUGH: And Congress and U.S. Senate, there's no term limits. KOGAN: No term limits at the federal level. CAVANAUGH: What did one party say term limits would do for politics in Sacramento? Do we see results for that? You said that what prop 140 was promising voters is that you would have more citizen legislator, you would see more minorities and more women being able to win elections and have a place in Sacramento. Is that what's happened as a result of prop 140? KOGAN: There's three things that at least proponents of term limits argued. That it would lead to the election of people who would not see this as a career. It would lead to the election of more diverse candidate, and create more competitive elections. And I think on all three fronts, the reality has fallen far short of the expectations. Certainly the state legislator has gotten much more diverse. But a lot of that started before term limits were adopted. And if anything, term limited had a very small effect. Now it hasn't led to the election of the citizen legislators. We still have people who see politics as a career. Now instead of serving for 40 years in the legislator, they start off at the School Board, they go to the City Council, then they go to the legislator, and they just move around from office to office. So it really hasn't brought a new breed of legislator to the state government. And on the other side, it has had some negative consequences. And I think Thad has done a lot of this work. What it has done, I think, is it's changed the way the legislator works. It used to be the case that the legislator was -- did a lot of its work in committees. And these committees had members who were there for a long time to specialize in a particular policy area, and they spent a lot of time keeping bills that were not necessarily good off the agenda. That's less the case to do. The committees still do some of that, but a lot more bills get through and a lot more works get done on the floor, and it leads to things like corporate hijacking of bills where you have bills on the floor that get stripped of their content, and a new bill gets added in with little review at the last minute. CAVANAUGH: Why would term limits have that effect? KOGAN: Part of it is the reduction in explanation F. You're in an office for six year, it's hard to become specialized in a particular policy area, so it's hard to do that work. But it also means there's a lot less reason for other legislators to defer to you. You're not much more of an expert than they are. And the other most major impact, I think, I think the biggest change has been the interaction between the governor and the legislature. We see a legislature that does a lot less oversight of the executive branch. It has a lot fewer -- asks for a lot fewer audits, it brings in a lot less information and goes out and really researches what executive agencies are doing. And it takes a much more passive role in the state budget. So after term limits, legislators change a lot les of the budget than the governor proposes than was the case before. So term limits have strengthened the hand of the govern at the expense of the legislative branch in California CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Thad, it sounds as if you're not a big fan of term limits. Would it be fair to read this prop 28 as a step toward trying to get rid of them? KOUSSER: I don't think so. And I think voters clearly want that idea of term limits, sort of the dream of term limits, of keeping new people coming to Sacramento, keeping -- accelerating the way that the folks in the state legislature actually look like the rest of the California as we demographically change. And I think there's a lot to be said for that. I got to the legislature as a staffer in the mid-90, there was a guy who had been elected for the first time in the 1930s. So I understand that. , and I think voters want new people to come to Sacramento. They just want them to get the job done when they get there instead of this endless hop scotching. And so I think this initiative, voters in California are nowhere near going to turn their back on term limits, but they want it to work right. And I think that's what this prop 28 is all about. Making term limits get closer to fulfilling its promises of bringing in folks with new ideas but giving them time to do their job. CAVANAUGH: We have been hearing for years now that there's partisan gridlock in Sacramento and that's why nothing gets done. Do you think that term limits are responsible in any way for the partisan gridlock in Sacramento? KOGAN: Critics like to attribute all sorts of problems in California to term limits. If you look at the research, also comparing across states that got term limits and states that didn't, there's not a whole lot of evidence that the most visible problems we're talking about, things like polarization, budget problems, that term limits have had a significant contribution to that. So polarization has grown all across the country, in all sorts of state, states with term limits and without. And in California, are the growth of polarization began far before term limits. So I think it's difficult to make the case that term limits are to blame and that getting rid of them is going to magically fix all of these major problems and challenges that the state face. CAVANAUGH: So it's not responsible for part son gridlock. One of the things that was surprising when I looked over the information on prop 28, most of the opposition of the tweaking of the term limits law, are and the number of years that legislators can keep their jobs seems to be coming from Republican legislators. And I wondered why would this be a partisan issue? KOUSSER: That's a good question. I think historically, term limits in California have -- arose as a partisan issue partially because of willy brown, who was a partisan legislator. And why Republicans are more likely to continue supporting it, I don't know the answer. I think one cynical explanation, and I certainly won't say this is always the case. But people that don't want big government and don't necessarily want government to do a whole lot are exactly the kind of people that might want institutions that are weaker. So certainly if you look across the states, one of the groups that pushes for term limits across the states is called U.S. term limits, a lot of its money comes from libertarian causes because there's a belief that having term limited legislators is going to mean less active government. CAVANAUGH: Is there any way that you see prop 28 undermining the idea that as you said, the dream of having a citizen legislator? KOUSSER: Well, I think it's just that, right? It's a pipedream, this thought that we're going to have legislators who just mosey off into the sunset after they're term limited. That hasn't happened in California today. Politicians are political animals, they're ambitious. And what the founding fathers knew so brilliantly, we just need democracy that channels those ambitions and aligns them with voters. So the idea is that you let legislators with all their ambitions and plans for the future satisfy voters in 1st District over and over and over again F. They do the job, they can be rewarded and spend 12 years representing that 1st District and harness all of their ambitions into doing one thing right. And you give up this dream of the citizen lawmaker. CAVANAUGH: Now prop 93 failed in 2008. Prop 28 is pretty much the same. Does it have any better chance? KOUSSER: There's one huge difference. The big probation with prop 93 is that it would have affected all the legislators sitting there in the legislature at that time. And it had a loophole that would allow one of them to spend 18 years in Sacramento. This proposition, totally different. It doesn't apply to anyone elected to the legislature right now. There's no self-dealing or conflict of interest, and no loophole. So nobody gets more than 12 year, and it just affects people elected in the future. CAVANAUGH: Okay. So everybody who is in office now would be subject to the terms -- KOUSSER: The old term limits. CAVANAUGH: Got it. So give us a closing case, here, Thad. What would be the benefit to California voter fist they did vote for prop 28 to change term limits? KOUSSER: What they'll see is California would have term limits like many other states have that bring new voices into Sacramento, let them get on one committee, keep their staff, develop the expertise, not have lobbyists who have played this increasing role in filling that information vacuum, sponsoring their bills. But these legislators would be doing their job, working for one set of voters, and making California government work a bit better. CAVANAUGH: And Vlad, this isn't really fair of me, but I'm going to ask you to weigh in briefly on this. It seems to me in reading the information that one of the arguments against prop 28 is that people are kind of feeling that this is it a little chip on term limit, and this is the first step to eliminating them. Do you think that that would be a motivation for people not to want to see this pass? KOGAN: Well, I think certainly people that don't like the term limits are going to support this at a higher rate than the people that do. But to be fair, I'm not sure that the argument -- when we go to the doctor, we don't look for a doctor that just got out of medical school. When we go to the car repair shop, we don't look for a mechanic who just got his degree because we think that's some benefit to experience. And I would argue that politics is very similar. It's a complicated job, you have to know a lot, you have to learn a lot, and certainly the -- there's room for debate about whether term limits overall, whether getting rid of them would be a bad thing for California or not. CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know of course the -- our primary election, excuse me, is June 5th. You can check out our voter guide to the candidates in the issues at KPBS.org/election.

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Current term limits:

State Assembly 6 years

State Senate 8 years

14 years total

Prop 28 Term Limits:

12 years in Assembly or Senate

California Proposition 28, called the "Change In Term Limits Initiative," would reduce the number of years a politician can serve in the California legislature from 14 to 12. But, it would increase the time a legislator can serve in either the Assembly or the Senate.

Currently, a legislator may serve six years in the Assembly and eight years in the state Senate. Prop 28 would permit a legislator to serve all 12 years in one house. Once a lawmaker has served 12 years, he or she can't switch to the other house.

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Vlad Kogan, a Ph.D. candidate at UC San Diego, said those who support the measure say it acts as a compromise between enforcing term limits and allowing legislators to "become experts and get things done."

He said many people want to make politics a career, but know they only have six or eight years in a state office, so when they're elected, they're already looking for another job.

"By extending those time horizons, by giving them 12 years, you really create more incentive for lawmakers to invest effort and time in becoming good policy makers," Kogan said.

He said those against Prop 28 say it's an effort to chip away at term limits.

Term limits were first passed by state voters in 1990. Kogan said 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 to Prop 28 was defeated by voters. But Kogan said that measure would have applied to current legislators, so it was seen as a "backroom deal" to allow current lawmakers to serve longer terms.

If passed, Prop 28 would only apply to future lawmakers. It will be on the June 5 ballot.