Today marks the beginning of a new legislative session and the biggest test of the impact of term limits on California’s legislature. This legislative year marks an historic event. With 36 new members of the lower house (that’s almost 50% of the entire Assembly) and just about the last of the truly experienced senators now termed out, the impacts of term limits have created an unseasoned and inexperienced legislature and a huge gap of knowledge and know-how. The question of the day is whether a state that represents the 6th largest economy in the world and 1 out of every 8 Americans can be effectively governed by people who barely know their seating assignments, let alone how to legislate around a state of 35 plus million people?
Of course, there is much posturing and pomp on this day. It is, as I can vividly recall, full of excitement and expectation. Family gathers from all points on the map for the swearing in ceremony. Good staff has helped generate at least one bill (usually directly affecting one’s district or meeting a specific campaign promise) for each new member to introduce by “putting the bill across the desk”, thereby creating a perfectly legitimate press release to send to the media in their respective districts. The new era begins with lots of hopes and dreams……and in this particular session, with alot of built-in chaos.
The Senate introduces at least 10 new members who have served previously in the Assembly. For several it represents the reinstatement of their legislative careers after a brief hiatus while waiting for sitting Senators to complete their final terms before being ousted through the very popular but debilitating term limits laws in California.
While many of the most senior members like John Burton, John Vasconcellas, Dede Alpert and Byron Sher were termed out previously, this cycle saw the loss of the largest number of well-seasoned and effective members. Gone is the wisdom and effectiveness of people like Jackie Speier, Joe Dunn, Martha Escutia and Liz Figueroa, just to name a few of the experts who have spent years learning not only the art of legislating, but the substance of difficult and complex issues that require comprehensive understanding and nuanced treatment to be effective.
In the lower house, often referred to as the “sandbox” by more experienced political observers, members come in, most with lots of good intentions, some posturing on issues or jockeying for position. Regardless of motive, however, what is universal is a lack of appreciation or comprehension of the complexities of the tasks ahead.
The major flaw in the limitied terms our term-limits mandate imposes on our legislative institution is the lack of experience and consistency that is critical in the development of sound and coherent public policy. What is missing and so critical for new members in any organization, however, is the opportunity to watch and learn from those with experience and wisdom. When one’s mentors are those with only two years more experience and who themselves, have little or no institutional memory or understanding, you have the ingredients for a potential disaster.
So, for the 36 new Assemblymembers, in particular, today is a day of celebration, back-slapping, hugs and congratulations from friends, family, supporters and colleagues. The real work begins in January. Let’s hope the “leadership” is able to keep the ship afloat while all the newbies try to absorb in very short order what really takes years to learn.
When politics becomes a crap shoot instead of a nuanced balance of power and policy, ultimately the people are the ones who suffer. Let’s hope that the rest of the legislative infrastructure can keep the ship headed in the right direction for the future of our state.
Congratulations to all those being sworn in today. Tomorrow starts a most daunting task. We will be watching closely.