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New Faces to Recast California Assembly

BYRON SHER has been a member of California's State Assembly for almost 16 years. He written much of California's landmark environmental laws, chairing the powerful committee on Natural Resources. But now Mr. Sher is out of a job.

Assemblyman Sher is among the last of California's ''professional'' legislators. He is one of 24 Assembly members who this year are being forced to leave their seats because of California's term-limits law. With the 1996 election, the Assembly will be entirely composed of ''citizen legislators,'' limited to serving just six years in office.

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''I didn't support term limits,'' says Sher, a Democrat from Palo Alto. ''The results are not what the voters expected. The new people are just as partisan as before. And the type of people running are not much different.''

Such criticism of California's term limits is widespread, creating what Mark Petracca, University of California, Irvine political scientist, calls a ''blame-term-limits cottage industry.'' Opponents of term limits claim the change has led to bitter partisan battles that paralyzed the legislature last year. Other critics contend that reducing the influence of money and lobbyists over politics, one of the aims of the initiative, has not occurred.

Term-limit litmus test

California was among the first states to implement term limits, along with Oklahoma and Colorado. The GOP's Contract With America aims to do the same for the US Congress, although state-imposed limits on federal Congress members have been overturned in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. California's size and the scale of its electoral districts, mean the experiment here is being watched closely as a test.

California's term limits were imposed by the voters in a ballot initiative passed in 1990. Assembly members must step down after three two-year terms; senators must leave after two four-year terms. The limits are the strictest in the nation after Nevada.

Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, also being ''term limited out,'' as it is put here, decries ''newcomers who have little experience with the process of negotiation and compromise.'' The liberal Democrat points to the virtual absence among the new members of legislators ''who are not just dogmatic, my way is the only way, types.''

But the law still has its supporters. ''I think the turnover of members is good,'' says Assemblyman Steven Kuykendall, a Republican from Long Beach who was elected in 1994. ''I think it brings a little different kind of person to this place than you'd had in the past. You don't get the long-term pols coming in and staying forever. I think you bring an enthusiasm and a sense of urgency in the people who come here.''

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Mr. Kuykendall, who came here after 20 years experience in the banking industry and service in local government, rejects the charge that the new members are not capable of doing serious legislation. ''I would like to think that those of us who come here are smart enough to deal with what's laid on our plate,'' he says.

But Sen. Bill Lockyer, the Democratic president pro tem of the Senate, remains highly critical of term limits. ''This was a Republican strategy to seize control of state legislatures all over the country,'' he says. The Republicans were able to take advantage of ''general anti-incumbent grumpiness,'' he argues, and have a natural advantage in a situation of rapid turnover because ''they have more money.''

Moreover, Senator Lockyer argues that the limits ignore the ''process of maturation of a legislator.'' All legislators arrive in what he calls an ''advocacy mode,'' but working with other legislators ''takes the edge off your advocacy because you're not sure those opinions are right.''

Instead, the legislature is now characterized by increasingly bitter confrontations, Lockyer says. ''With truncated terms, you don't get past the advocacy phase.''

Professor Petracca, who is conducting an ongoing study of the effect of term limits, believes that it's too early to come to judgment. ''Up till now we have had a transitional state,'' he says. ''After 1996, we will get a group of amateurs serving for short periods of time.''

Other factors have also influenced the atmosphere in the legislature, Petracca points out, including a major redistricting that took place in 1992 and the partisan shift on a national level, both of which have increased the ''bickering'' in California's legislature.

An increase in candidates

But certain effects of term limits are already evident, according to Petracca's study. Among the changes are a significant increase in turnover, a drop in the percentage of legislators seeking reelection, declining rates of reelection, an increase in the number of candidates, and a decrease in the margin of victory, a sign of growing competitiveness, he believes.

In the state legislature, term limits have also cut the power of the Assembly, where former Democratic Speaker Willie Brown ruled with an iron fist for some 15 years, in favor of the Senate. ''Power has shifted to the Senate,'' observes former Republican Assembly leader Robert Naylor. ''Term limits have turned the Assembly into the farm team for the Senate.''

Indeed many term limited assemblymen, Sher and Mr. Vasconcellos among them, are running for vacated Senate seats. The result is far more intense competition at the primary level, in some cases with two deposed assemblymen battling each other for a vacant Senate seat.

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