BIG-CITY, COASTAL DEMOCRATIC leaders are selling it, but landlocked, rural Republican voters are its likely buyers. Large state-employee unions are feverishly bankrolling it, but union households are ambivalent toward it. The Republican governor who used to oppose it now supports it, while GOP lawmakers who hotly denounce it will happily accept its future benefit to them.
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Thanks to Attorney General Jerry Brown, who approved its bizarre title, it's billed as "Limits on Legislators' Terms in Office" on the February 5 ballot. Despite its misleading title, the measure would all but guarantee that 18 state senators and 24 state Assembly members — more than one-third of California's extremely unpopular Legislature — could cling to office for another four and six years, respectively.
Welcome to the paradox that is Proposition 93 — a stealth measure that's got voters so confused that many of those planning to vote for it don't know it would, for the first time, significantly weaken term limits in California.
"This is a public policy that people don't know the details about," says Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, a pollster attuned to how California voters think. Although term limits are wildly popular with Californians, ignorance about how they actually work is widespread, with just 1 percent of likely voters "able to identify the total amount of time legislators can serve right now"— 14 years. Says Baldassare: "Only 1 percent!"
According to multiple polls, Californians' views on term limits are in dramatic conflict with what they plan to do on February 5, thanks to carefully designed, confusing double meanings in Prop. 93. While voters overwhelmingly support existing term limits, which since 1990 have confined legislators to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate, these same voters are now leaning toward approving Prop. 93.
One study by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies predicts that if this initiative passes, the average legislator will serve four more years than he or she does now — and legislators' terms will return to the average time in office before term limits took effect.
All this is the consequence of one of the slickest confusion-peddling campaigns in election-season memory, in a state known for purposely confusing ballot measures. If Prop. 93 passes, 42 termed-out legislators — 34 this year and eight in 2010 — would get to run again, in safe seats designed to return all incumbents to office. Seventeen of them, including state Senators Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, would end up serving a total of more than 14 years in office — some for as long as 18 years. (And historically vociferous term-limits supporter and Republican state Senator Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks would get to stay for 26 years.)
Part of the voter ignorance is due to the California media, who have for months dramatically underplayed the fact that one-third of the termed-out Legislature — a consistently unpopular body of 120 politicians with a 41 percent approval rating — could overstay. Only a handful of references to the 42 hangers-on in the Legislature showed up in California newspaper coverage this month — and the legislators were almost never identified by name (Click here to download a PDF file listing all 42 legislators who could run again).
Moreover, California's chief legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, glosses over their bid for self-preservation in her supposedly nonpartisan description, stating in the mildest possible terms that Prop. 93 would let "some current" legislators serve for longer than 14 years.
"Frankly, I don't think I ever counted the number," admits Michael Cohen, director of state administration at the Legislative Analyst's Office, which specializes in mind-numbing number crunching but didn't bother figuring out how many legislators would get to stay beyond 14 years. "It's not a majority, but it's a significant number," Cohen says. "It was a judgment call on our part. Clearly, there was complexity."
THE SLICK-TALKING HEAD of this campaign is longtime Democratic Party operative Gale Kaufman, a Sacramento power queen who is also consultant to the measure's most visible beneficiary, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat. Kaufman first unveiled the measure last February. On paper, it appears at first to be a limit on term limits: The current 14-year span would be replaced with a 12-year span, and instead of making politicians split those years between the Assembly and the Senate, as is now the case, it would allow politicians to do their entire stint in one house.
But the trick here was the fine print: A "transition period" clause allows incumbents — McClintock, Nunez & Co. — to serve 12 years in their current house, regardless of how many years they've already been in Sacramento. Some of them have been there, well, practically forever, like 16-year Sacramento shuffler and Assemblywoman Betty Karnette of Long Beach, who first entered the Assembly in 1992, then went to the Senate in 1996, then back to the Assembly in 2004. If Prop. 93 passes, she'll be able to do 20 years in Sacramento — second only to McClintock's 26.