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History shows term limits are a bad idea

Stah Statham
Former state legislator

In 1994, I sought a promotion that I didn’t want.

I had been in the Legislature for 18 years, representing Lassen, Plumas and other counties in the far north of California. I loved serving in the Assembly. I didn’t do anything wrong! I didn’t even come close to committing a felony, unless putting about 90 good laws on the books was wrong.

As a couple of examples, in 1980 I increased California’s drunk driving fines from $70 to $320 with Assembly Bill 2086 and I then provided dozens of millions of dollars in newly harvested food to senior gleaners “free” with AB 2895. I did this while I simultaneously tried to limit the number of bills a legislator can introduce. The always-challenged Legislature killed that bill. People sometimes made fun of me. But it was a great time and I was working hard.

Too bad though, my time was up. Californians had passed term limits in 1990. Assembly members could only serve six years, and senators only eight years. The clock started in 1990, and my term limit was fast approaching in 1996. I was being forced to get a different job. So I ran for lieutenant governor. I lost in the Republican primary.

However, as life teaches us, one is doing fine as long as one thinks one is doing fine. I am doing fine. I remarried. I found a job working as the president/CEO for the California Broadcasters Association and even moderating gubernatorial debates. Wow! How’s that? (That was me trying to prevent Arianna Huffington and Arnold Schwarzenegger from killing each other during the recall debate in 2003). I am not sure that the Legislature ever missed me. But I miss the Legislature.

And the Legislature is missing something. You know the last time that a majority of Californians told pollsters that they approved of the job their Legislature was doing? Back in the fall of 1990 — the month before they approved term limits.

If you thought it was bad in the 1900s when those already in office decided the length of terms, redistricting and whatever else they could think of, how is it now? With all of us “professional” politicians gone, how do you like the “amateurs”? Not very good, huh?

The amateurs are even more careerist than we were — in part because term limits require more jumping around between jobs.

One of the strangest consequences of term limits, particularly with the new redistricting maps produced by a citizens’ commission, is the phenomenon of “quasi-incumbents.”

“Quasi-incumbents” are what I call sitting members of the Legislature who had to move into a different town simply in order to stay in their district once the lines changed.

Moving to a different town in one of the new citizen-formed districts keeps these quasi-incumbents in the Assembly or state Senate. That lets them continue to serve the remaining portion of the years that they are allowed because of the term limits.

It also makes them quasi-carpetbaggers. It is a confusing time of musical chairs of districts and of incumbents. And when you’re playing musical chairs, how do you govern?

The answer is: you don’t. Term limits are part of the problem. Twenty-one years after Californians passed term limits, it is past time to ask voters: What were you thinking?

Oh, that’s right, many citizens wanted to get rid of Speaker Willie Brown. They thought he was too liberal. My party supported term limits then to get rid of him.

I wish we hadn’t. I now believe that limiting your representative to a certain length of term doesn’t even make common sense. It is anti-voter-choice. It is anti-democratic. Why should you not be able to keep your representative as long as you like? I am surprised the courts justified term limits as constitutional for California’s elected officials.

Speaker Brown had a much broader, more moderate perspective than our legislative leaders now.

When I decided to introduce AB 2, to study the possibility of dividing California into more than one state, I was quite surprised when my friend Willie helped me proceed with that idea. He told me he was elected in 1964, and by 1966 he introduced a bill on the possible division of our state. He told me that he also felt California was too big and always battling dysfunction.

He was right. I wish he were still in the Legislature to help us do something about it. He’s probably smart enough to figure it out. I’m still trying to decide what would be best.

 


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