LOS ANGELES -- Just possibly, the most important balloting of the 1990 off-year campaign may take place here in California -- and it won't be the Dianne Feinstein-Pete Wilson contest for governor.
The governor's race has been touted as the star electoral event of 1990 because California stands to gain seven more congressional seats, and the governor can play a key role in district reapportionment. But two initiatives on the ballot could have more far-reaching impact going well beyond the borders of the nation's most populous state.
They would place lifetime term limitations not only on all statewide office holders but also on all members of the state legislature, in an effort to inaugurate an era of what proponents like to call "citizen legislatures."
The first such limitation recently has been voted in Oklahoma, and another is on the November ballot in Colorado. There, the organizer, state Sen. Terry Considine, says the initiative must be used because expecting state legislators to vote limitations on themselves "is like asking chickens to vote for Colonel Sanders."
But California could be the key to the movement's future. The state has a well-established reputation as a national trend-setter, so backers hope -- and opponents fear -- that voter approval here will ignite a wildfire across the land.
Both sides well remember 1978, when California Proposition 13, which put a lid on property taxes, was instrumental in launching a nationwide tax revolt. California also has one of the most professional, full-time state legislatures in the country. Passage of one or both the initiatives could deal the notion of career legislatures a heavy blow.
Right now, the prospects for one or both of the term-limitation proposals seem bright, despite a well-financed assault on them, led by General Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, himself a veteran of 26 years in the Sacramento legislature.
Proposition 140, the more ambitious of the two -- or the more destructive, its foes would say -- not only would limit Assembly members to six years and state senators and statewide officials to eight. It also would scrap the state legislature's generous retirement system and extend the modest benefits of Social Security to the members. And it would sharply cut members' expenses and staff.
The second initiative, Proposition 131, would limit legislators' terms to 12 years and statewide officials to eight. It also would provide for campaign public finance and ethics reform and is backed by California Common Cause. Under both plans, the clock on term limitation would start ticking only upon passage, meaning that veterans like Willie Brown would have six or 12 more years to serve, and to contemplate later employment.
The moves to limit legislative terms come at a time of notable public disfavor with public officials and particular frustration with lawmakers, not only in state capitals but in Washington as well, where budget-cutting procrastinations reached scandalous proportions this year.
Here in California, the heavy resort to the initiative process has itself been a testimony to public frustration with legislative action, or inaction -- and to the skills of special interests to use it to circumvent a recalcitrant legislature on their pet objectives.
But beyond the frustration is a serious debate over what kind of individual should serve as a legislator, as well as for how long. The proponents of the two initiatives deplore the fact that more than 90 percent of legislative incumbents are re-elected, many without challenge. The critics blame it on incumbent entrenchment, with their influential offices and seniority a sure magnet for campaign contributions that, once built into an impressive treasury, often scare off any challenger.
The supporters of term limitation argue as well that career lawmakers become captives of the system and lose sight of why voters have sent them to the legislature. The foes say government has become so complex that it takes time to build up expertise and effectiveness.
The issue was the subject of debate earlier this month at a one-day conference on term limitation at the University of Southern California here. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader helped sponsor the meeting, heavily loaded with proponents of one or the other of the initiatives.
Nader, in a keynote speech, countered the expertise argument by observing: "There were a lot of amateurs in Philadelphia 200 years ago, and they didn't do badly at all." He cited the "arrogance" of Congress proceeding to vote itself a huge pay increase without public hearings last year, and its more recent failure to monitor the monstrously costly savings-and-loan fiasco evidence of "legislative paralysis wrapped in a career cocoon."
OLD, NEW RASCALS