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Term Limits Eroding Effectiveness Of State Legislature

Study Suggests Mending, Not Ending, Limits On Legislative Service

SAN FRANCISCO, California, November 10, 2004 — While term limits are neither the populist victory its proponents had in mind nor the unconditional disaster some predicted it would be, the reform has seriously undermined the effectiveness of the state’s legislative branch and should be modified, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Adapting to Term Limits: Recent Experiences and New Directions is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the effects of Proposition 140, passed by California voters in 1990. The study draws on quantitative analyses using bill contents and histories, voting behavior, budget figures, and other archival records, as well as the testimony of informed observers.

Overall, the effects of term limits on Sacramento’s policymaking process have been profound. In both houses, committees now screen out fewer bills assigned to them and are more likely to see their work rewritten at later stages. As a body, the Legislature is less likely to alter the governor’s budget, and its own budget process fails to encourage fiscal discipline. Legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly. “Legislators are learning more quickly than in the past, but frequent changes in the membership – and especially in the leadership – are taking a toll,” says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies and Robson Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Cain coauthored the report with Thad Kousser, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

The study also finds that term limits altered – but did not revolutionize – the type of legislator who comes to Sacramento. Specifically, Proposition 140 accelerated trends of increasing female and minority representation that were already underway in California. Rather than representing a new breed of “citizen legislator,” however, new members after term limits behave a great deal like their predecessors, arriving with local government experience and running for another office – usually an Assembly or Senate seat – when their terms expire.

The authors offer a number of specific recommendations aimed at compensating for the unintended consequences of term limits. Most significantly, they suggest amending Proposition 140 to limit legislators to 14 years of total legislative service in either house. Currently, members are allowed six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. “This minor reform would not erode the gains brought by Proposition 140 in terms of increased diversity and could greatly increase the experience and proficiency of state legislators,” says Kousser.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.

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