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California's Term Limits: Case Study for US Reform

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FIVE years into one of the nation's most far-reaching experiments in state term limits, the citizen revolt shows signs of dramatically reshaping politics in California.

It is leading to a massive turnover of state lawmakers, significant changes in staffing, and a different emphasis on issues.

To supporters, the measure is starting to do what it was supposed to -- usher in a new generation of lawmakers who will help undo the gridlock of the past. But critics see a legislature that lacks experience and leadership, and is thus avoiding making tough decisions on important issues.

''If you wanted to design a prescription for weakening the legislature, voters couldn't have found a more effective one than term limits,'' says John Syer, professor of government at Sacramento State University.

California's experience with term limits is important. While 22 states now have similar laws, the measure here was one of the earliest, affecting a government second in size only to Congress.

Thus, as lawmakers in Washington this week take up the issue of term limits for its members, California provides a case study of what such a move might mean.

Passed in 1990 by a slim margin, Proposition 140 grew out of voter anger over corruption and political paralysis in Sacramento. Under the law, state Assembly (lower house) members may now serve only six years, or three two-year terms, and Senate members only eight years, or two four-year terms. After that, they face a lifetime ban, though they could run for other offices.

Even though no one has officially been turned out of office yet -- and the full impact of the law won't be know for some time -- it is producing plenty of seat-shifting as members anticpate its effects.

''The turnover has been staggering,'' says longtime Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz, who must leave next year.

He notes that currently 58 out of 80 Assembly members have two years or less of experience, and in 1996 no one in the Assembly will have more than four years of experience. No senator will have more than eight years experience.


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