Bill Whalen

It’s time for California to reconsider term limits

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, is joined by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, as they head to a drought relief press conference in March. Bill Whalen says because of term limits, legislative leaders have lost clout to the governor.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, is joined by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, as they head to a drought relief press conference in March. Bill Whalen says because of term limits, legislative leaders have lost clout to the governor. rpench@sacbee.com

This November marks a quarter of a century since voters approved Proposition 140, ushering California into a brave new world of term limits for state lawmakers – a world reshaped by 2012’s Proposition 28, which offered the stick of reducing legislators’ stay in Sacramento from 14 years to 12, with the carrot that they could spend the entire time in one chamber.

Curiously, it’s not just lawmakers whom voters would keep on a short leash, given the chance. A July Reuters poll found 66 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents favor a 10-year term limit for U.S. Supreme Court justices.

I break with many a Republican in that I’m no fan of term limits. In a free society, voters should be free to stick with what they like. Besides, I’d point to two troubling consequences in California.

Problem one: The death of the peer-to-peer relationship between the governor and legislative leaders. In the first half of the 1990s, budget debates in Sacramento were a duel of wits between then-Gov. Pete Wilson and then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. The two were a year apart in age; Brown entered the Legislature in 1964, one class ahead of Wilson. With each possessing three decades of political smarts, they punched at the same weight.

Now, fast-forward from 1995, Brown’s last year in Sacramento. Since, there have been 11 Assembly speakers, and in 2015 we have the trinity of Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. De León was a few days shy of his 4th birthday when Brown won his first statewide office in 1970; Atkins didn’t move to California for another 15 years.

This is not to disparage the two rookie leaders, but instead to bemoan the fact that whether it’s the state’s finances, the drought, or our schools and universities, Brown is negotiating with a term-limited Legislature of limited working knowledge.

My other gripe: Term limits have turned our state constitutional offices into a game of musical chairs for some and blackout bingo for others.

The latest Democrat to hint interest in succeeding the term-limited Brown as governor is State Treasurer John Chiang. Already, Chiang has served two terms as state controller and a decade on the State Board of Equalization before that.

Whom did Chiang succeed as controller? Bill Lockyer, whose 32 consecutive years in Sacramento also included stints as Senate leader and attorney general. Lockyer surprised folks when he retired in 2014; he easily could have swapped jobs with Chiang and become treasurer.

History doesn’t bode well for Chiang if he runs in 2018. Kathleen Brown and Phil Angelides lost races for governor while serving as treasurer (granted, against incumbent Republicans). Besides, the line forms at the rear for hyperambitious Democrats who are bored and restless, gullible enough to be conned by consultants, or not wanting to wait until 2026, presuming whoever replaces Brown serves two terms until forced by Proposition 140 to leave office.

Here’s a suggestion for the term-limit crowd: Why not add a new kind of time-out?

Call it the “FDR Rule:” After 16 consecutive years in Sacramento, an incumbent has to take a four-year hiatus before running for a statewide office.

California has benefited from Jerry Brown’s 28-year sojourn between his two turns as governor. He came back disciplined and pragmatic. Things weren’t so ducky for Gray Davis, a Sacramento presence for 16 straight years – Assembly, state controller and lieutenant governor – when he succeeded Wilson as governor in 1999.

Or let’s put Proposition 140 up for another vote next year. What fun it’d be to see Brown run for a fifth term in 2018 – against a Democratic gen-next who can’t wait for the man to leave town.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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