- Sherry Pickering
The state legislators in California play a key role in the funding for the California State University (university). They may also impose new reporting requirements, change the laws and set new rules that directly affect the university at any time. As a university administrator the system-wide conferences that I attend typically feature a speaker from the California State University’s advocacy team whom will outline the political landscape and discuss content and status of current legislation. A key point that has routinely been made in these presentations in the last several years is that term limits are detrimental to the university. Specifically we are told that term limits mean that the state legislators are constantly campaigning so they cannot be bothered with key issues that are important to the university or, if they’ve just entered office, they are too new to be of much help. This leads to the question, are term limited state legislators more or less likely to be responsive to the requests of bureaucratic interests?
Term limits were enacted for the California state legislature with the passage of proposition 140 in 1990. “The law limited state Assembly members to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms.” (California_Term_Limits,_Proposition_140_(1990), 2015) It also imposed “a lifelong ban against seeking the same office once a member” was termed out and prevented “new legislators from earning pension benefits.” (California_Term_Limits,_Proposition_140_(1990), 2015)
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California was among the first in a series of states to adopt term limits. This trend begun in the 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s to the early 2000s that ended with to up to 21 states adopting some term limits. Six states have since repealed these changes in the wake of a 1995 ruling that congressional term limits were unconstitutional, in that states could not place limits on a federal office.
The push for term limits in the 1990s seemed to be a grassroots effort. Throughout the 1980s in California incumbents seemed to be impossible to unseat. This was in part due to advantages of name recognition enjoyed by all incumbents. However that effect was reinforced by several redistricting efforts that made it increasingly difficult for the predominantly Democratic members to be challenged by Republicans. These results for the legislative bodies were in stark contrast to the results in the three gubernatorial contests that occurred during this period where a Republican was chosen.
The proposition was backed by Republicans whom were interested in the passage of these laws in two way. Ideologically Republicans are in favor of a more limited government. Term limits are generally seen as a way to weaken a legislative body which is alternately used as an argument for or against term limits laws. More importantly in the early 1990s Republicans were in favor of term limits as a way to create more competitive races for seats. Given the make-up of the legislative membership it seemed that the Republicans stood to gain the most with the passage of term limits.
Main stakeholders involved with this issue are state legislators. In California there are two legislative bodies, the state assembly and the state senate. Unlike other states such as Texas where legislative appointments are part-time, California legislators have a full time or professional appointment. In the assembly there are 80 members while in the state senate there are 40 members. While several political parties exist, these legislative bodies only have representatives from the Democrat and Republican parties. Presently Democrats hold a majority of the seats in both the assembly and senate.
The staffs of these legislative bodies represent another group that would be deeply interested in this issue. This staff is made up of partisan staff, usually represented by those that work for individual legislators, and non-partisan staff such as those that work for the administrative arm of these bodies. For example, non-partisan staffers in the Legislative Analyst’s Office provide analysis for each bill presented in each house. While the non-partisan staff may seem to have more secure positions regardless of the passage of term limits they would be impacted by an increase or decrease in the amount of bills generated by the legislators.
Lobbyists and special interests have a stake in the outcomes wrought by term limits. These lobbyists may represent bureaucratic interests like those of other state agencies such as university, prisons and health and human services or external parties such as business and issues groups. These groups would be keenly interested in how term limits have strengthened or weakened their influence on these legislative bodies.
Citizens of the state play a key role in shaping law in California. In 1849 referendums or initiatives, which are changes to the state constitution or laws, were referred to the electorate for a popular vote. This law was expanded in 1911 to allow externally sponsored initiatives to be brought to vote. The initiatives process means that the voters are asked to decide if either tiny or sweeping changes to laws should be adopted. While this should result in a more direct style of government as a voter it gives the impression that the legislative bodies aren’t working to come to consensus on decisions that they should be more informed than the average voter to make.
Legislators, legislative staff and lobbyists largely opposed the proposed term limits law because of the seemingly detrimental effect that it would have from each of their perspectives. Prior to term limits some legislators served in the same seat for decades. In the face of term limits these legislators had to reimagine how they could perform in office under these new rules. Legislative staff tied to a particular legislator or party faced an uncertain future where they may need to find a new job every few years. Finally, lobbyists could no longer rely on their long relationships with a particular legislator nor could they influence affiliated committees with these relationships.
Beyond the rhetoric published as the term limits law was up a vote, there is ample evidence that legislators dislike these laws. For example, in the majority of the states without these laws each state’s legislative house law would have to be passed on a vote to be adopted. Yet these laws have never gained enough support. In the U.S. Congress term limits could only be imposed on senators and representatives by passing a vote in those legislative bodies, but term limits proposals have been brought to vote several times and failed to gain enough support to pass.
Therefore the electorate seemed to have the most to gain from adoption of term limits. The expected positive outcomes most frequently citied during the campaign to pass the law were that term limits would lead to a more diverse, citizen legislature that represents the electorate’s interests, and balanced power the between the executive and legislative bodies. While all of these aims may not have materialized, overall likely voters in California seem to be pleased with the results in the last several years.
One area where it could be argued that term limits has succeeded is related to the diversity or make up of the legislators. Supporters of the law claimed that it would create new opportunities for women and minorities to become representatives. Generally the number of women in the legislature rose statewide and adjusting for other factors “term limits opened up nine Assembly seats for women” between 1990 to 2001 (Cain & Kousser, 2004). Nationwide the effect of term limits on participation rates for women seems to be virtually flat.
(Institutional Change in American Politics: The Case of Term Limits, 2007)
California had a long history of electing minority representatives. In the period after term limits laws went into effect minorities were elected to the state legislature in greater numbers. This was in part to seats that became available due to term limits. However, term limits removed long serving minority members such as Willie Brown. So the overall effect of term limits on the make-up of the state legislature in California did show an uptick in the election of minority legislators, specifically Latinos.
(Cain & Kousser, 2004)
One area where term limits seems to have had no effect is on the careerism of legislators. Proponents of the term limits laws were certain that the career politicians would be phased out due to term limits and seats would become available to ‘citizen’ candidates. Instead since term limits have been put into place legislators seem to map out a series of jobs that begin in local government, rise to state legislature and go onto elected state office or back to local government. (Cain & Kousser, 2004) Research found that in 1980 “the share of Senators who had been Assembly members had risen to 65 percent. By 2001, that figure rose to 90 percent.” (Cain & Kousser, 2004)
Legislative staff concerns about term limits came to pass in a couple of ways. With the downturn and subsequent shortfalls in the state budget non-partisan legislative staffs, namely the staff of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, were cut dramatically. The staff of the Assembly also suffered cuts related to budget shortfalls. So the staff has experienced a greater amount of work, not because of a change in the amount of legislation, but rather from a reduced number of staff to perform the work.
Partisan staff also experienced a shift in their jobs in the wake of the adoption of term limits laws in California. As expected with the loss of some job security, the tenure of this staff has decreased. Along with fewer years of service the expectations of the staff in these positions has changed. For example, prior to term limits staff were expected to analyze legislation. After term limits staff must also provide recommendations with their analysis.
An alarming outcome of term limits for the university is that it seems to have strengthened executive branch in certain ways. One key way this has materialized that directly impacts the university is that the legislature is less likely to be effective in altering the governor’s budget. Researchers observed this effect by comparing budgets for certain categories in the budget in years before term limits and after the laws went into effect where economically the state was experiencing similar circumstances.
(Cain & Kousser, 2004)
In a less studied way this effect has been noticeable in the last few years has been on time budgets which is helpful to the university in creating more stability for the transition from one fiscal year to the next. However, this means that there have been fewer objections to the governor’s budget proposal by the legislators. For the university system the governor’s budget has fallen short of the budget requests that were submitted. Additionally, while there have been some increases for the university between the governor’s budget and the May revise that takes tax collections into account, these have only made some progress in replacing the state support that the university lost in the financial downturn.
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This virtual lockdown in the budget process and insistence by the Governor that tuition fees remain level over the last few years has made it difficult for the university to grow system-wide enrollment. The Governor has also expressed his view that the university should cut cost of course delivery by adopting an online model more rapidly. While this is a fine opinion to have, it does seem that his budget allocations for the university reflect an unwillingness to recognize that making such a drastic change in a large system does not happen overnight. The overall lack of legislative voices disagreeing with the Governor on these points has been very noticeable.
One expected outcome of instituting term limits was that the influence of lobbyists would be diminished. This was supposed to occur because the lobbyist would have less time to develop long relationships with any one legislator so lobbyists would have less success in influencing the political process. While if this were true it could mean that the university’s lobbyist’s claims are true, there is some evidence that this outcome has not been realized. When surveyed lobbyists responded with term limits in place the influence of the Governor increased quite dramatically. Additionally, the influence for their firms specifically stayed about the same or increased slightly with the implementation of term limits.
(Moncrief & Thompson, 2001)
In the years after the term limits were enacted under proposition 140 there were four attempts to remove or change the law. The first three attempts, a lawsuit and two ballot propositions, failed. Proposition 28 was passed in a June 2012 election. With this amendment legislators may now serve in either house in any combination of terms up to 12 years. This doubles the time that a member of the Assembly could serve under proposition 140 rules. While the effects of this recent change remain to be seen, it is possible that it will return some balance to the political process and reign in the executive branch.
While I can see that the university’s lobbyists are likely working harder than they did in the past, I see no evidence that they have less influence under term limits. Given that the budget is a key issue for the university what may also be the case is that they are putting their efforts into influencing the members of the legislature that worked well under pre-term limits conditions when their efforts would be better spent demonstrating that the university system has value to the executive branch. In light of this analysis, I believe the university’s lobbying group should:
- Assess their current program to determine how much of their time is allocated to committee support, specific contacts with legislators and the executive branch.
- Then evaluate the effectiveness of the meetings with specific legislators. If this leads to more effective committee support then they should likely leave their time allocation as it is currently. However, if their meetings yield little results they should assess how that time could be better utilized to up their contact with the executive branch.
It is well known that this governor is no fan of higher education; however any improvements that could be made as a result of the renewed efforts on the part of the lobbyists would be helpful. It seems likely that they are well aware of the research underpinning this analysis, but I have been surprised in the past how frequently people do not read about their own professions. So going through this assessment could do them well.
Basham, P. (2003). Defining Democracy Down: Explaining the Capaign to Repeal Term Limits. Washington D.C.: Cato Institute.
Cain, B., & Kousser, T. (2004). Adapting to term limits: recent experiences and new directions. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.
California_Term_Limits,_Proposition_140_(1990). (2015, 03 07). Retrieved from ballotpedia.org: http://ballotpedia.org/California_Term_Limits,_Proposition_140_(1990)
Donovan, T., & Snipp, J. (1994). Support for Legislative Term Limitations in California: Group Representation, Partisanship, and Campaign Information. The Journal of Politics, 492-501.
Institutional Change in American Politics: The Case of Term Limits. (2007). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Moncrief, G., & Thompson, J. (2001). On the outside Looking in: Lobbyists’ Perspectives on the Effects of State Legislative Term Limits. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 394-411.
Robinson, K. (2011). Shifting Power in Sacramento: The Effects of Term Limits on Legislative Staff. California Journal of Politics and Policy 3(1).
Walters, D. (2012, 03 30). Changing Term Limits isn’t the Answer. Monterey Herald, pp. http://www.montereyherald.com/general-news/20120330/dan-walters-changing-term-limits-isnt-the-answer.
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