Term Limits: What Are Arnold’s Options?

Californians may soon find out what happens when one of this
state’s most popular political ideas meets one of its most popular
politicians ever.
Californians may soon find out what happens when one of this state’s most popular political ideas meets one of its most popular politicians ever.

The idea: Term limits. The politician: Gov. Arnold Schwarz-enegger. The background reality: No one likes being a lame duck, and that especially applies to Schwarzenegger, who thrives on having his options open.

Aside from the property tax limits embodied in the landmark Proposition 13, term limits for the last 15 years have been about the most popular concept possible among California voters. Meanwhile, aside from Ronald Reagan, Earl Warren and perhaps Dianne Feinstein – none of whom ever had to deal with term limits – no politician in this state has enjoyed the popularity Schwarzenegger now possesses.

But Schwarzenegger finds himself up against term limits. Because he served more than half a term after taking office in the recall election of 2003, his current term will be his last under existing law.

But suddenly there’s the possibility that term limits could change. Imposed by the Proposition 140 ballot initiative in 1990, today’s limits hold all statewide officials to two terms, while allowing state assembly members no more than three terms (six years) and state senators two terms (eight years).

Every attempt to change those rules has failed abjectly. But there may be a dent in that previously solid wall. For this fall, in a vote that got little notice outside Los Angeles, that city’s voters passed something called passed Measure R, giving city council members a new maximum of three four-year terms. The new law keeps a two-term limit on mayors. It passed by a whopping 59-41 percent margin.

True, there was a lot of deceptive campaigning for the measure, with many mailings hyping the fact that it would limit council members to just three terms, without mentioning that the previous maximum was two.

Measure R has two meanings for politicians in Sacramento. First, it allows them hope that opposition to changing term limits may be softening. Second, it limits the options of many Los Angeles area lawmakers, and they may want to do something about that.

For the Los Angeles city council has been a frequent refuge of termed-out legislators.

Most celebrated of these is current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a termed-out Assembly speaker who served two years in the council before winning the top job at City Hall.

The longer local limits mean there may be no place for current Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to go when he reaches his limit two years from now.

He had been expected to run for an open council seat in 2009, but now there’s little likelihood of a vacancy.

Which means some of the most powerful figures in Sacramento now have strong motives to extend their own term limits.

Plus, Schwarzenegger may not want to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Barbara Boxer in 2010, as many analysts expect him to do.

Winning that spot would compel him to commute non-stop between Washington, D.C., and California, and he’s already somewhat annoyed by the commute between his sizable hacienda in Los Angeles and a luxurious Sacramento hotel suite.

Wouldn’t he be a lot more comfortable running again for reelection?

Nunez also plainly would love four more years. For one thing, changing the limits would allow him to stay in Sacramento and retain his high profile until just before the Los Angeles mayor’s job he so patently covets is next likely to become open.

There was some talk between Schwarzenegger, Nunez and other top lawmakers last summer of a deal that would place a measure to reform legislative and congressional redistricting on the fall ballot along with another plan to extend term limits. Those talks fell through.

But the passage of Measure R combined with Schwarzenegger’s easy reelection changes things for everyone involved.

The upshot: Expect to see a proposition on the 2008 primary election ballot – or in a special election before then – aiming both to give lawmakers more time and to change the current patently unfair redistricting process.

Columnist Tom Elias writes about California politics. His email address is [email protected]

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