Proposition 93's Fatal Flaw

by Tony Quinn
Nov. 30, 2007
Proposition 93, the term limits initiative, took a hit earlier this month when billionaire State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner announced he would fund the campaign in opposition to the measure, which to that point had enjoyed little in the way of significant monetary opposition. Now Poizner has been joined by the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers’ union (CCPOA) that plans to spend heavily to defeat the measure.

Their involvement makes it far less likely that the measure will pass at the February presidential primary, since the measure contains a fatal flaw that once exposed will probably bring it down.

This opposition underscores the symbiotic relationship between term limits reform and redistricting reform. Gov. Schwarzenegger made it clear his support for changing term limits required the legislature to place on the same ballot a measure reforming redistricting. Had that happened, and Schwarzenegger supported Proposition 93, there is little likelihood either of these opponents would have dipped into their deep pockets to fund the opposition.

The saga of term limits and redistricting demonstrates how Sacramento works, and doesn’t work, and in this case, how the shortsightedness of the political class has doomed a reform they very much want and for which there is strong public policy support.

The measure changes the current six-year Assembly term limit and eight- year Senate term limit into a single 12-year term in either house. Many observers think a single 12-year term would strengthen the legislature.

Early on, it appeared the measure was on its way to passage, buoyed by Attorney General Jerry Brown’s very favorable ballot title and strong polling numbers. Brown wrote that the measure reduced the time a legislator may remain in office from 14 to 12 years.

But this is only half true. Most Assembly members have served less than six years; they can serve 12 years in the Assembly under Proposition 93. So proponents can argue this is a reduction in time, something the public clearly supports.

But most State Senators had prior Assembly service and some are already in their 14th year of service. Ten of the 20 Senators whose seats are up in 2008 are in their 12th or 14th year. Proposition 93 gives these senators an extra four years. So the new 12-year limit is really 16-18 years, and in some cases even more. A similar measure to extend legislators’ time in office was trashed by the voters in 2004; there is little reason to believe they will react differently this time once Poizner and CCPOA’s millions tell them all about it.

However, this little glitch might not have been a problem if the measure included redistricting reform, had bi-partisan support, and therefore no significant financial opposition.

So the probable defeat of Proposition 93 can be placed at the feet of those who killed redistricting reform at the end of the 2007 session and opened the door for the multi-million dollar opposition the measure now faces.

Speaker Fabian Nunez understood this; he worked hard to pass a redistricting measure, fully aware that term limits reform and redistricting reform must go hand in hand. But the very Senators who are the biggest beneficiaries of term limits extension killed redistricting reform.

Proposition 93 was specifically rewritten and resubmitted to the Attorney General to meet the political needs of Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who is already in his 10th year in the Senate. Proposition 93 allows him 16 years in the legislature, given his two years of prior Assembly service. Sixteen years is not exactly the 12-year limit Brown’s initiative title suggests.

But Perata was the one who killed Nunez’ redistricting reform, thus setting into motion the chain of events that now seems likely to kill term limits reform as well. Perata claimed he did not want to include reform of congressional redistricting because of opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But that’s a red herring, a measure easily could have passed to reform legislative redistricting only, and that probably would have met Schwarzenegger’s demand.

Lincoln once said the hen is the smartest creature because she only cackles when the egg is laid. The absence of redistricting reform now seems likely to kill off the companion term limits reform. The politicians should have laid that egg before trying to cook the omelet.

Feature archive