LOS ANGELES -- In a revolt against entrenched politicians, three Western states including California are on the verge of limiting the terms of their state legislators -- a sudden revival of a practice that has been moribund since the Articles of Confederation more than two centuries ago.
Support for 12-year limits on state senators and representatives in Oklahoma is so strong, advocates say, that three of four gubernatorial candidates there have endorsed a term-limiting measure on Tuesday's runoff ballot that is almost certain to pass.
Polls show strong support also for term-limiting measures on the November ballots in Colorado and California, although the majorities favoring two California ballot initiatives are expected to diminish once a $4 million opposition effort by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D) gets underway.
Supporters and opponents of the term-limiting measures say they reflect growing voter dissatisfaction with long-term legislators who seem to listen more to special interests than to voters when making laws.
John Keast, initiative analyst for the Free Congress Foundation, said if the three Western states limit legislative terms it could create momentum in states such as Florida and New York, where term-limiting bills have been introduced, and accelerate efforts to amend the Constitution to limit the terms of U.S. senators and representatives.
Although more than half the states limit terms of governors or other statewide executive officers, Keast said there have been no term limits on state or national legislators since the Articles of Confederation, the rules for the first, short-lived U.S. government that restricted national legislators to three years service in each six-year time span.
The rise of modern political techniques such as mass mailings and computerized redistricting has made holding legislative office in California "a lifetime sinecure unless they molest small children at high noon in a public park," said Lewis K. Uhler, president of the National Tax-Limitation Committee. Forty-three percent of California state senators and 33 percent of Assembly members have served at least 12 years and 97 percent of California legislative incumbents won their 1988 races.
Coloradans Back in Charge, the group that drafted that state's ballot amendment limiting elected state officials to eight years and U.S. senators and representatives to 12 years, said in a statement the reelection rate for Colorado state senators in 1988 was 100 percent and "no incumbent state senator has lost since 1982."
The statement concluded: "When politicians remain too long in office, they pay less attention to the people who elected them, and more attention to the special interests and the bureaucracy. And the door is opened to corruption."
States have the power to limit members' terms in their own legislatures, but efforts such as the one in Colorado to impose term limits on members of the national legislature are considered of dubious constitutionality.
Brown, who has served 26 years in the California Assembly and an unprecedented 10 years as speaker, vows to raise $4 million to fight Propositions 131 and 140, the two California term-limiting measures. Sources familiar with campaign strategy say they think voters can be convinced that special interests would have even more power if the two initiatives passed.
Brown opened fire on the initiatives in a lengthy exchange with reporters last month. "I don't think you would want your bridges to be built with apprentices only," he said. "I think you'd want some journeymen engineers. You'd want some journeymen workers there."
Brown and a group of talented campaign consultants were able to defeat two initially popular initiatives on the June 1990 ballot that sought to limit the legislature's redistricting power.
"But this time we start with a much higher percentage of support," Uhler said of the term-limiting effort. He said the less partisan nature of the new initiatives and the larger turnout in a general election may also make a difference.
Uhler, who is also pushing a constitutional amendment to limit U.S. senators to 14 years and U.S. representatives to 13 years, is a co-sponsor with Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum and Marin United Taxpayers Association President Mike Ford of Proposition 140, the more severe of the two California initiatives. Proposition 140 would not only impose lifetime limits of eight years for state senators and statewide officers and six years for Assembly members, but would also kill the legislators' pension plan and reduce their office expense accounts.
The other initiative, Proposition 131, was drafted by state Attorney General John Van de Kamp as part of his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. It limits state legislators to 12 consecutive years and statewide officers to eight consecutive years, but allows officeholders who have reached the limit to run again after sitting out a term. It also provides for public funding of campaigns, an unpopular idea here.
But Mervin Field's California Poll released earlier this month showed Proposition 131 leading 61 to 25 percent, with Proposition 140 ahead by an even larger 67 to 20 percent margin.
If both propositions pass, almost all provisions of both initiatives are expected to take effect, with the length of term limits determined by which measure receives the most votes.
Brown opposes both propositions, but seems particularly irked by Proposition 140 and Schabarum, an irascible Republican who differs with the speaker on nearly every issue. Last month Brown cut off the microphones of two GOP assemblymen who tried to make friendly references to Schabarum when the Los Angeles supervisor visited the Assembly floor.
Brown told reporters he thought Schabarum "would love nothing better than to have special interests totally control government by having nothing except rookies participating in the process." He indicated he would try to convince voters that Schabarum "is really invading their total prerogative to fire any member of the legislature anytime they wish or keep them as long as they may wish."