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The San Jose Mercury News (California)
Feb 16, 2007 - 01:00 AM

by Steven Harmon, MediaNews Sacramento Bureau

Termed out? Maybe not;

MEASURE'S APPROVAL COULD KEEP PERATA AND NÚÑEZ IN POWER
In a move that would lock in the power of the state's two top legislators for up to six years longer, heavy-hitting political interest groups on Thursday filed a ballot initiative to change term limits.

The measure, filed with the state Attorney General's Office, would reduce the overall number of years legislators could serve -- from 14 to 12. But it would allow legislators to serve all 12 years in one house of the Legislature -- rather than six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, as the current term limits allow.

"We need to reform the current system,'' said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, "so that California has a stable Legislature that is focused on solving the state's growing challenges rather than the next election.''

There are 34 legislators facing term limits in 2008 who could have their terms extended under this initiative. The most prominent are Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, who could serve another four-year term, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, who could get six more years in the Assembly.

The managers of the initiative campaign said success will depend on whether voters continue to hold positive views about legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It doesn't hurt that legislators won't have to be seen as pushing it, said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political consultant who is co-managing the drive with Republican strategist Matthew Dowd.

The initiative process "gives it a much better shot at passage,'' she said. "It seems to us that we want to build as broad a coalition as we can, with academics and groups linked to reform.''

Until Thursday, many believed legislators would approve their own term limits measure as part of an overall political reform package that includes giving an independent commission the power to draw political boundaries.

Legislators will now be able to keep their distance from the term limits reform as their proxies -- the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Teachers Association -- do the heavy lifting.

However, Núñez's fingerprints were readily apparent. Kaufman, his political consultant, said she has worked closely with her boss and Zaremberg on the initiative.

To reinforce the bipartisan support the initiative is expected to draw, Kaufman enlisted the help of Dowd, Schwarzenegger's top strategist in his re-election campaign last year. Dowd, though, said his presence should not be read as a reflection of Schwarzenegger's position.

"Neither the governor nor his staff asked me to do this,'' he said. "This is not something that says Gov. Schwarzenegger endorses this.''

A spokesman for Schwarzenegger would not say whether the governor would support a term limits initiative on its own but said that his focus is on redistricting reform. The governor has, however, indicated he is willing to contemplate changing term limits.

The measure would not apply to Schwarzenegger or to any other constitutional officers.

The organizers said they hoped the measure would be put on the next ballot -- presumably Feb. 5, 2008, if legislators, as expected, approve a bill to move up the presidential primary. The bill leaves legislative primaries on the June ballot.

Supporters say they hope to collect 1.1 million signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, a process that would cost $2 million to $2.5 million, organizers said. The signatures would have to be collected by the end of July. Fundraising is not expected to be a problem.

"We hope we can do this in time,'' Kaufman said. "It's a short window.''

Critics say that legislators are using an early presidential primary as a pretext for an early vote on term limits. If the initiative passed in February 2008, it would allow Perata and Nuñez to retain their seats. If it's delayed until June, it will be too late; they already will have been termed out.

"Really, what we're looking at,'' said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, "is two powerful politicians looking to extend their stay in office.''

Republicans fear that if the measure passes, they will lose a bargaining chip in their negotiations with Democrats over redistricting reforms. Democrats generally oppose giving up the power to draw political boundaries but have been willing to do so in exchange for Republican support for extending term limits.

"This is not helpful,'' said Jim Brulte, a former Senate Republican leader who is part of a coalition seeking redistricting reform. "Clearly, this is one way to get term limits reform on the ballot without redistricting.''

Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, met with Perata Thursday to discuss what a term limits initiative might do to chances for redistricting in the Legislature.

"To pull it out and push that ahead goes contrary to our agreement that we'd look at the two together,'' Ackerman said. "If you put term limits out by itself, you lose the enthusiasm to do anything with redistricting.''

Perata hinted that he supports keeping the reform package together.

"I met with the Assembly speaker today and he briefed me on his proposed initiative,'' Perata said. "My concerns about term limits are well known. But I also believe we need a broader discussion about political reform, and what we can do to make government more open and accountable.''

Legislators, Kaufman said, were going to have to deal with the issues separately anyway.

"This does not preclude redistricting from going on the ballot,'' she said.
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Contact Steven Harmon at sharmon@cctimes.com or (916) 441-2101.




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