One big reason term limits remain so popular in California 18 years after voters imposed them via a 1990 ballot initiative is that they guarantee new faces and assure that power doesn’t remain in the same hands for very long.
The same political party, maybe. But never the same individuals for more than a few years.
So it was no accident that voters eventually saw through the façade of Proposition 93’s claim of reducing term limits and realized this measure was designed solely to ensure that 42 present state legislators would be able to serve either four or six more years than current limits allow. Two of them were the leaders of the Legislature’s two houses, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez of East Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland.
Both bet heavy political capital on their pet initiative, dunning other legislators for many thousands of campaign dollars while circulating petitions to qualify the measure and during the campaign for it over the last three months.
But they lost, and handily. Which means a new era will soon begin in the Legislature.
Will the “post-partisanship” that has seen Núñez often look like a cuddly lap dog for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continue with different individuals in control of legislation and the budget process? Will the same policies pushed by Núñez and Perata persist when they depart?
The answers are likely no and yes.
Schwarzenegger has spent so much time wooing the existing leaders that he has not done much with their potential successors. People like Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Albert Torrico of Fremont, both possibilities as the next Assembly Speaker, have not been on the A list for Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver.
Neither has Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, chosen almost immediately after the election to be Perata’s successor as the Senate’s Democratic leader.
All are Democrats, and since Democrats are virtually certain to remain in control of the Legislature next year, Democrats will again hold its key power positions.
None of the potential successors to the present leaders – who may stay on in a titular, lame-duck stance until August – has been as cozy with Schwarzenegger as Núñez and Perata.
But don’t expect the policies they push to be very different. If there’s one law that will stand for years as the benchmark of the Núñez/Perata era, it will be AB 32, the pioneering bill mandating controls on greenhouse gases in an effort to reduce or at least stabilize climate change.
Every potential new leader voted for that law in its early form, later watered down considerably in order to win Schwarzenegger’s signature.
Even though Bass has been Núñez’ loyal No. 2 as Assembly majority leader, she wouldn’t necessarily have the same agenda on everything. For one thing, she’s an African-American woman and her elevation to speaker would be a departure from recent Latino domination of the post, held by Cruz Bustamante, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Núñez for 10 of the last 14 years.
Who gets the key jobs will depend in part on whether Democrats want another relatively long-term speaker like Núñez, elevated during his first term in Sacramento, or someone who won’t be around long enough to dominate.
Senate Democrats have already decided they want a long-term leader in Steinberg, who could serve until 2014. If they had wanted a short-term interim leader, they could have gone for Gilbert Cedillo of Eastern Los Angeles County, due to be termed out in 2010.
One thing that seems likely: Just as in the Senate, the new leadership will not hail from the San Francisco Bay area, but will come from either Southern California or the Central Valley. For many Southern Californians and Central Valley residents feel they have not received as much of the benefit from bonds passed last year as their regions should have, based on their population, and Southern California lawmakers have the votes to make sure they hold the reins of the Assembly, while the Senate gets its first leader from the Valley since the 1960s days of Russell Collier.
None of these figures wants to discuss freely how their leadership might differ from Núñez and Perata. But the very least voters can hope is that the new speaker doesn’t run up a long record of spending campaign dollars on luxury items and travel, as Núñez often did, and that the new Senate leader doesn’t have to spend years trying to fend off a federal corruption investigation, as Perata is still doing.