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Prop. 93 confusing, but better than current law

As a political villain, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is a pallid substitute for his flamboyant predecessor, Willie Brown, self-proclaimed "ayatollah of the Assembly" who was the original poster child for the state's term-limits law. Nobody who looks like he's 14 can qualify as an ayatollah.

But in their search for a bad guy, the opponents of Proposition 93, which would make the law a little more flexible, have no choice. Núñez is the best they've got.

Let's be fair. Proposition 93, which is on the February ballot, is a slippery piece of work. It offers present officeholders, Núñez among them, a chance for more years in the house in which they're serving even as it reduces the number of years they can serve in the Legislature.

So anyone who believes that punishing Núñez or Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata or other legislators is the highest first priority probably will vote against it. But those who want a Legislature that has a chance of being a little more effective and of taking a longer view of the state's problems will hold their noses and vote yes.

Under the existing law, passed by the voters in 1990, no one can serve more than 14 years in the Legislature -- six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. Proposition 93 would allow anyone, including Núñez and Perata, to serve a total of 12 years in one house or the other, or in a combination of both.

Thus, with the help of clever labeling, it can be sold as a reduction in term limits (which most voters presumably like) even as it would allow Núñez, who otherwise would be termed out at the end of this year, to run for three more two-year terms in the Assembly and Perata (ditto) to run for another four-year term in the Senate.

That slippery quality, combined with Núñez's lavish personal spending and the great gobs of special-interest money he's raised for the cause, has prompted virtually every newspaper editorial board and lots of others to rise in righteous wrath to denounce this measure.

Why, Núñez may even be trading favors in the state's proposed health-care bill for contributions from unions representing some of the lowest-paid workers in the state.

Some opponents of Proposition 93 acknowledge that California's term-limits law is, if not outright stupid, at least too tight to allow legislators to gain experience and take a long-term view and understanding of the state's complex issues before they chair committees trying to deal with those issues. It might even allow voters to get to know their legislators a little better and mitigate the biennial crapshoot at the ballot box.

But in the editorialists' view, the flaws of the law, which will continue long after this generation of politicians has moved to other offices or across the street into the ranks of the lobbyists, are nothing compared with the evil legislators who'll be rewarded if Proposition 93 should pass. And it will seem to show that the papers are not in the pockets of Democrats.

None of these shenanigans ought to be surprising. Proposition 140, our current term-limits law, also was sold with fake arguments.

It promised a new crop of honorable citizen-legislators who'd do their short stints in Sacramento, then go home to take up the plow or their cuddly little law practices. And it would get rid of that black liberal speaker from San Francisco.

The inspiration for Proposition 140, and the first million to qualify it, came from a one-time Cal football star named Pete Schabarum, who was retiring after five years in the Legislature and 19 years as a Los Angeles County supervisor -- no term limits for him.

Schabarum had campaign funds left that he wasn't allowed to spend on himself, so he decided to buy his fellow Californians relief from other Schabarums.

But much of the money came from outside California, some of it from a pair of Kansas oil billionaires. Although term-limits initiatives were passed in a score of states in the early '90s, the prime targets weren't the Legislatures, which hadn't all happened to go bad at the same time, but the Democrats' control of Congress.

The Supreme Court struck down that effort as unconstitutional, but with a couple of exceptions, state term limits have stuck.

The opposition to Proposition 93 doesn't have anywhere near the money that the proponents have raised from public employee unions and other interests -- Indian casinos, energy companies, medical groups.

But with the notable exception of money pledged by California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the "no" campaign, like the original term-limits initiative, is funded by out-of-state groups.

We're forever chasing our tails, complaining about lousy representation, then limiting legislative discretion and accountability terms, then complaining more loudly. Maybe the problem is us.

Schrag can be reached at