Calif. legislators react with anxiety, disbelief and anger to term-limit law

November 24, 1991|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Special to The Sun

SAN FRANCISCO -- From the instant the term-limit movement in California picked up momentum two years ago, state legislators were understandably nervous. Then came their disbelief when voters passed an initiative last year throwing out all 120 of them by the end of the decade and drastically cutting their operating budgets.

Some legislators still clung to the hope of a legal reprieve. But last month the California Supreme Court upheld the law. Since then, the capital has been awash in a tide of anger and resentment.

"I'm so disheartened and embittered by it," said John Vasconcellos, chairman of the Assembly's Ways and Means Committee, who has served in the state legislature in Sacramento for 25 years. "It's the personal insult and the lack of appreciation for what people can do with a lot of tenure."

The Democrat said he felt so "burnt about it" that he might not finish out his term.

While anti-incumbent sentiment has swept the country, commonly bringing calls for term limits, California's law -- which includes a life time ban against legislators ever regaining their office -- is the first to be upheld in the courts. Colorado and Oklahoma also passed term-limit laws in 1990.

In a sign that the public may not be completely sold on this, however, a term-limit measure in Washington state was defeated earlier this month. That measure, unlike the California law, would have restricted the tenure of congressional as well as state lawmakers.

In California, members of the Assembly are limited to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms, with January 1991 considered the starting point. The entire 80-member Assembly and about half of the 40-member Senate will be forced out by 1996. The rest of the senators will be out by 1998, if they have not already departed.

Joseph Remcho, a lawyer for the legislature, said that lawmakers are considering appealing the court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that some of the enthusiasm for a court fight has waned. "There is some concern that maybe we should put this behind us," he said.

The massive firing has put a lot of incumbents in a bad mood.

"I'm noticing a kind of disheartened, empty feeling around the capital," said Bill Lockyer, who has served in the Assembly for 19 years. "The mood and atmosphere is so gloomy, it might be a reason to do something different, to teach or practice law or both."

Like many incumbents, the Democrat said he felt rebuked by voters.

"It's very frustrating to read your mail and be told you're all a bunch of slime-ball creeps and crooks, when you work hard on legislative prospects and put your heart and soul into making things better," Mr. Lockyer said.

A kind of mass grieving process is under way, said Republican William J. Filante, who is planning to leave the Assembly to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1992. "It's like what you go through with the loss of a loved one -- denial, anger and so forth," he said. "There's a lot of various stages of this going on."

Along with their personal disappointment, many legislators said they felt pained by the idea of a 100 percent rookie legislature going up against the governor and lobbyists.

"It's far from the ideal way to legislate," said Republican Sen. Rebecca Morgan. "You lose expertise, you lose continuity and historical knowledge. . . . I understand the [voters'] frustration. I fear the consequences."

Some newer legislators feel they never got a chance to make their mark. Democrat Delane Easton left a job as a corporate planner at the Pacific Telesis Group to run for the Assembly and was elected in 1986. "There's some question if I would have taken off from my career for a six-year, dead-end job," she said.

She said her ability to do her job, along with her morale, has been further damaged by the budget cuts mandated by the term-limit law. Like other legislators, she has had to cut staff severely, in her case by 40 percent.

"I'm in my third term and I feel I'm just starting to get dangerous," Ms. Easton said. "I'm trying to restructure public education in California and it takes a long time. . . . It's very frustrating when I realize I'm at the end when I should be at the beginning of my effectiveness."

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