Thursday, July 21, 2011

Career Politicians Undeterred by California Term Limits

The Sacramento Bee reports today on a new study from the Center for Governmental Studies, which reaches the following unsurprising conclusion: California's term limits have failed to create a class of "citizen legislators," private citizens who briefly interrupt their careers and lives to hold elected office. Instead, the Golden State's politicos are more likely to be career politicians who move from one elected or appointed office to another.

Why did everyone think of me when this story came out?
According to the CGS study, 60% of Assembly members who were termed out in 2008 went immediately into another elected or appointed public position, along with 40% of termed-out state Senators. For termed-out lawmakers between 1980 and 1990 (when the term limits were imposed), the corresponding percentages were 60% of Assembly members and 30% of Senators. The study's authors recommend reducing the maximum number of years in office from 14 to 12, but would allow all of these to be served in one house. A ballot measure to implement this reform has qualified, and will probably come before voters next June. Curiously, CGS would also allow termed-out lawmakers to run for office again after a four-year absence.

So why have term limits produced people like Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Curt Pringle rather than citizen legislators? It's impossible to say for sure, but it's probably some mix of the following explanations:

1. Sociopathy. Let's face it: there's a segment of the population that wants to have power over others for its own sake. And let's face it: a career in politics is a very appealing option to these people.

2. Pensions. As residents of Bell and Vernon could tell you, elected or appointed office in California offers the chance to spend your retirement years in a luxury that would make a Colombian drug lord jealous. Diamond Bar Assemblyman Curt Hagman actually introduced a bill in March, AB 738, which would've abolished pensions for all elected officials and appointed managers in California government. It didn't last long, once the unions got wind of it.

3. Compensation. Part of the reason politicians don't go into the private sector is that it's tough to find a better paying job if you have a liberal arts degree and no real skills. The average state lawmaker makes over $95,000 a year, not counting the per diems and (until recently) free cars. Back in April, we also learned that many termed-out lawmakers end up with appointments to California's many state commissions, where they earn six-figure salaries for doing almost no work. If we want fewer career politicians, we really need to figure out ways of making politics less rewarding. A part-time legislature would be one option; matching lawmakers' pay to that of New Hampshire's legislators might be another.

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