Five good arguments against legislative term limits

A joint session of the Legislature listen to Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech earlier this year.
A joint session of the Legislature listen to Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech earlier this year. Sacramento Bee file

We spend plenty of time criticizing, ridiculing and excoriating the 120 men and women who represent us in the Capitol. But today, with the legislative session over, we acknowledge a handful of departing lawmakers who left marks worthy of note.

They share certain traits: a willingness to work hard, tackle complex issues and cultivate relations, understanding that compromise is not a sign of weakness.

Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat who became steeped in finances as budget committee chairman, is departing after 14 years, including six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.

Leno, reflecting his constituency, has been among the most liberal members of the Legislature, focusing in part on gay rights legislation and the criminal justice system. He was in the middle of efforts this year to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and tenaciously pushed legislation that ultimately led to restrictions on the toxic flame retardants being placed in consumer products.

He found opportunity to work with some of the most conservative members, among them Sen. Joel Anderson, a San Diego County Republican. Together, Leno and Anderson worked on legislation to better guard privacy by requiring that law enforcement obtain search warrants to pick through individuals’ smartphones.

From Sacramento, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, left her mark nationally and internationally, starting with 2002 legislation that forces automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes in cars sold in California. The bill led to standards announced by President Barack Obama in 2011 requiring that automakers double mileage in cars sold to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

What we lose when talented lawmakers term out.

In 2006, she authored Assembly Bill 32, which requires a further reduction in greenhouse gas in Senate Bill 32 this year, to further curtail emissions. No legislator accomplishes much without smart staffers and alliances with other legislators. Leaders including John Burton, Fabian Nuñez and Kevin de León muscled Pavley’s measures through, and three different governors signed them. But Pavley deserves credit for a vision and persistence.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, spent much of her time dwelling on water legislation, a thankless task, and became a defender of the economic and environmental interests of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

She also was instrumental in passing California’s assisted-death bill, allowing individuals with terminal illness to turn to physicians for assistance in obtaining drugs that will end their suffering.

Like Wolk, Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen, R-Riverbank, left her mark on water-related issues, striving to protect her agriculture-rich district when legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown fashioned the $7 billion water bond.

Olsen, an outgoing and energetic public official, would be a natural for higher office in any state where Republicans have a shot at statewide office. That seems unlikely in California, for now. But to the benefit of Central Valley residents, she will remain in elective office as a Stanislaus County supervisor.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, a San Mateo County Democrat who chaired the Assembly Rules Committee, is known less for his legislation – though he got among the most bills signed of any legislator in the six years he served – than for his demeanor and sense of fair play. Republicans offered some of the most heartfelt tributes to him in speeches earlier this week, a lesson that legislators in the majority really ought to treat minority party members with respect.

Voters approved term limits in 1990 and modified the system somewhat in 2012, thinking it would improve governance. It didn’t. Leno, Wolk, Pavley, Olsen and Gordon are five arguments against the faux reform that is term limits. But they also prove that even in the artificially abbreviated tenure, talented legislators can bring about important change. For that effort, they warrant our thanks.