Ex-Legislators: Why Go Home?

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

One of the essential selling points of California's move toward term limits for legislators two decades ago was that, by serving shorter terms, more citizen legislators would be elected who would do their time in Sacramento and go home.

But it's not happening, according to the analysis of a non-partisan think tank.

A new study on the state's term limits law from the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) shows that there's been very little change in the post-legislative careers of those who come to Sacramento to serve in the Assembly and Senate.

"If the goal of California term limits was to force legislators to return to their former careers after a truncated stint in the state Legislature, then it has failed," says Tracy Western, the CEO of the CGS.

And indeed, that premise was laid out in the ballot argument in favor of 1990's Proposition 140. "Let's restore that form of government envisioned by our Founding Fathers," proponents wrote. "A government of citizens representing their fellow citizens."

The CGS study, admittedly only a snapshot of the post-Prop 140 world in Sacramento, compared the landing spots for the men and women termed out of office in 2008 to the careers of ex-legislators in the decade between 1980-1990.

In the Assembly, 60% of the 2008 departed remained in the public sector through either appointed or elected positions... the exact same percentage as did so in the 1980s. In the Senate, 30% of ex-members stayed in public service a generation ago; in 2008, it was actually a little higher at 40%. And in both instances, the ex-pols of the 1980s seemed to return to the private sector at a higher rate than those of today.

Exactly what accounts for all of that isn't clear, and the CGS study doesn't pretend to have the answers. But it does offer an opinion about one of the essential promises of legislative term limits:

These findings suggest that California's term limits have not created an environment in which citizen legislators temporarily serve in the state Capitol and then return to the private sector. Rather, it suggests that professional legislators pre and post term limits continued to seek careers in other governmental positions -- a form of political musical chairs for governmental office.

The new study could be the first blip on the radar of the looming 2012 campaign to reform term limits: a ballot initiative (PDF) that would shorten the total legislative career from 14 to 12 years but allow all of those years to be served in one house.

CGS president Bob Stern says his organization likes that idea -- which, unlike 2008's failed attempt, would not apply to current legislators -- but with one modification: California should drop its lifetime ban on another tour of duty.

Stern says there should be some reasonably long time a politician would have to step down, maybe four years or so, before making another run for office. After all, it doesn't seem many of them are going back home anyway.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Mark Leach

    The one thing never mentioned is that the elected officials today are people making risky career decisions unlike the “citizens” from 1776 who were actually wealthy slave owners whose plantations ran just fine while they were away making laws.

    How many doctors or lawyers today can leave private practice for 12 years and then return? If term limits create a financial problem for professionals who cannot expect to return to the same income levels they left behind, what does it do to other citizens? Imagine a 45 year old construction worker after serving 12 years, how are they realistically supposed to re-enter their original profession at 57? If a teacher or nurse holds office from age 50 to 62 will they have earned enough retirement? Will their pension plan consider it a break in service and require re-vesting? Will their retiree health benefits be lost?
    By design or default the result of term limits is that public office is for the financially secure or risk takers…is that really what we want?

    Elected office should be a career, if we want professionals why are we demanding amateurs?

    Let the ballots determine the term limit, if they fail us we vote them out, if the majority likes them they stay.

    California before Prop 140 and Prop 13 was an awesome California.

  • geoff snow

    “Let’s restore that form of government envisioned by our Founding Fathers,” proponents wrote. “A government of citizens representing their fellow citizens.”

    In 1776 The U.S. population is estimated to have been 2.5 million, 90% of which consisted of largely self sufficient farmers. This was a sparsely populated, ethnically and economically homogeneous country. What was there to legislate? None of those conditions exist in California today. It is absurd to think that politicians can quickly master the complexities of governing this state. The practical effect of Prop 140 has been to cede more power to the Sacramento Lobbying industry. And unless you think the annual state budget wrestling marathon is good governance, then Term Limits have clearly failed as political reform. Real reform means real campaign finance reform, including public financing of campaigns. After all, you get what you pay for, and if California voters refuse to pay, we already know that special interests will happily foot the bill. How’s that working out so far?

  • http://hemp.to/ hemp

    In the November election Orange County voters will have the chance to vote on a measure that adjusts the term limits for supervisors allowing them to serve a total of three four-year terms rather than the current limitation of two terms. Term limits were the rage nationwide in the early 1990s propelled by grassroots activists who argued that such limits would usher out career legislators and usher in a new era of citizen-legislators who were more in touch with voters and less enamored of the trappings of office. Like many reforms that tinker with the political process term limits produced some decent results i.e. getting rid of some long-serving sometimes corruptible old bulls and injecting some fresh blood and a lot of unforeseen consequences.