Calif. term limits create political musical chairs


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- With the clock now running on the term limitations voted by the California electorate in 1990, an elaborate game of political musical chairs is going on in an unsettled state legislature.

Although the first "class" won't be forced out of office until the end of 1996, when the new law of "six years and out" comes into play for the full state Assembly, legislators are already casting about for places to land. And in many cases they are looking to other government or government-associated jobs that the limits were supposed to clean out for fresh faces and non-career "citizen legislators."

One of them is state Sen. David Roberti, until this year the Senate president pro tem, who by a quirk must give up his seat in December (or next week, if he loses a recall election against him). Roberti is running for state treasurer in the June 7 Democratic primary.

Other veteran legislators are seeking seats in the "other body" -- assemblymen running for the Senate, senators for the Assembly -- either this year or in 1996 to beat the new term limits. Others are planning to stay in Sacramento as lobbyists and continue to wield influence -- and probably make more money.

The most prominent "house-hopper" is expected to be Assembly Speaker Willie Brown after 16 years in the legislature. The Senate seat partially in his Assembly district will open up in 1996 when the incumbent must retire. Brown says he plans not only to win that seat but also to run for and win the Senate president pro tem job in 1998, when incumbent Sen. Bill Lockyer is forced out by the term limit.

With as many as 30 of the 40 Senate members having served with him in the Assembly, Brown says, he is confident he can be elected -- and be back in the legislative leadership for the remainder of the two four-year Senate terms allowed under the law.

Brown says he considered for a time simply running for his Assembly seat again and challenging the law, and says some other Assembly veterans may do just that as write-in candidates. He predicts if they win they will be seated in a legislative decision that "would break the back of the law."

Brown and Roberti, both foes of term limits, say the new law has already had a negative impact on the business of the legislature, with members focusing on where they will land, rather than on legislative business.

Roberti, who gave up the top Senate job when he decided to run for state treasurer, notes that a number of senators have asked for fewer committee assignments so they can better pursue their own job hunts. Also, he says, the term limits are too short for a legislature that needs to deal with long-term problems, such as "how to reorder the economy of California with the diminution of the defense industry."

The increasing number of natural disasters also poses "long-range problems that cannot be addressed by a legislature operating on a musical chairs basis," he says. And legislators will be inclined to tackle only those projects they can see become reality before they have to leave, he says.

Roberti warns that the time limits will create "a third House," with the most experienced legislators and staff aides of termed-out members staying in Sacramento and hired by corporate interests "because that's where the money is."

Term limits were supported essentially by Republicans but it was a statewide voter initiative that put them on the books in 1990. One of the strongest legislative proponents, Assemblyman Dean Andal of Stockton, acknowledges that that initial impact "will be chaotic, but I'm for chaos." Party discipline no doubt will break down, he says, but it has only "been used anyway to thwart the will of the people of California."

Another supporter of term limits in Sacramento is former Gov. Jerry Brown in his current anti-establishment posture. He says the legislature never did anything during his eight years in office and he'd like to see the whole bunch thrown out. The reality, however, is likely to be that many will simply change jobs and remain forces in the state government, one way or another.

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