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.