A new version of term limits, a new way to draw voting districts, a new system for running primary elections. Those three changes all took effect in 2012. Each was intended to moderate the California legislature. As Katie Orr reports from Sacramento, there is hope the changes have been effective, but so far there’s no proof.
New lawmakers are frequently sworn in at the California State Capitol. But the class taking the oath of office last December faced a different legislative future from classes who came before them.
A new term limit law allows members to serve 12 years in one house, rather than restricting them to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
That means the freshman assembly members being sworn in could spend over a decade in one house. That’s exciting for Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen, who’s serving his first term.
“There’s an ability with this freshman class to really stand up in a way that previous legislative sessions have not been able to. And to say, look, we now have 12 years to go do the right thing. And I think that we’ll start see a lot of legislators look beyond their traditional party lines to work together to find comprehensive solutions for the complex and large challenges that California faces,” says Allen.
“It’s very early. But I’m, I’m hopeful,” says political scientist Steve Boilard. He says the change to term limits was just one of the measures meant to make the legislature more moderate. Giving a citizen’s commission power over voting district boundaries and switching to an open primary system were also meant to have moderating effects. Boilard points out all three were voter approved ballot measures.
“You get the feeling that people are frustrated and are kind of searching for some way to improve what they perceive to be problems with our legislative process,” says Boilard. “And I think those are partisan gridlock and lack of expertise.”
Boliard says a lot of institutional memory was lost when term limits were first introduced in 1990. He says this latest change will help restore some of that memory.
Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway has about a year and a half left in office before she’s forced out of the Assembly. The woman who sometimes calls herself the grandmother of the Assembly says she sees a freshman class with eye on long term goals, rather than short term action focused on the next election.
“I really believe it’s a better opportunity. Because, as I say, six years, especially in an arena like this, it can be very high stress. I think having more time and opportunity can lead to a better focus, a better focused legislature,” says Conway.
But a more moderate one? Conway isn’t yet convinced.
“I know that was the intention. For me the verdict is still out. I don’t know. On both sides. Time will tell,” says Conway.
There’s evidence a strong partisan divide still exists in Sacramento. Republicans regularly rise to object to bills passing through the Democratic controlled legislature. And they are regularly ignored. But freshman Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia says she’s already seeing signs of progress, a lot of it because of the bi-partisan nature of the freshman lawmakers.
“Republican and Democrats, we interact at our events, we help each other on bills. I know in the past the Republicans haven’t crossed the isle on much of anything. But the freshman here, in particular, not only cross the isle, but bring their counterparts with them. So there have been bills where you expect republican be completely opposed and the freshman help get a unanimous vote out on the floor,” says Garcia.
So is the legislature on its way toward a new period of moderate bi-partisanship? It may take years to know for sure. But all sides seem to hope we’re seeing the dawn of a new political era for California.