SAN FRANCISCO – Whether it’s Jane Kim or Scott Wiener who wins California’s 11th District State Senate race, it likely will take four or five years for either to learn the job and become effective, says a political scientist.
Years ago, Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, testified before the California State Assembly as it first considered term limits for legislators, which became effective in 1990. Term limit rules have been amended several times since then, most recently in 2012 with Proposition 28.
Smith said it was a bad idea in the 1980s, and he still maintains that term limits, which put the District 11 seat up for grabs in November, are contrary to democracy.
“Voters ought to be able to select people as long as they are electable,” Smith told the Northern California Record.
San Francisco voters won’t have the option of re-electing Democrat Mark Leno, who has served in the California State Senate since 2008, representing the 3rd District from 2008 to 2012, prior to being elected to the District 11 seat he now holds. Leno has termed out.
Under California law, Assembly members are limited to 12 years. State senators, however, have been restricted to two terms, or eight years, since 1998.
“These are arbitrary numbers," Smith said. "Twelve is arbitrary. Eight is arbitrary. This is not democratic because these arbitrary limits deprive citizens of the experience and legislative memory. Experience is valuable."
According to the professor, who has authored 10 books, political scientists in general are skeptical, if not opposed to term limits.
“Just as a legislator gets the experience necessary to be truly effective, their time is up," Smith said. "Then someone else has to start all over again."
Despite his overall negative view of term limits, Smith concedes that the requirement has some merit. Without term limits, there likely would be fewer women and minorities serving in the California State Assembly, he said.
Additionally, the restrictions prevent anyone from becoming so entrenched that their influence could be used for personal gain rather than the best interests of the people they represent, Smith said.
“Still, I am convinced that there would be sufficient turnover through the natural election process," he said. "And to my knowledge, there has only been one study, and it did not prove term limits have prevented negative consequences."
Smith was referring to research Bruce E. Cain and Thad Kousser published in 2004 under the auspices of the Public Policy Institute of California. Their study analyzed the content and history of bills, budgets, voting behavior and various records to evaluate the impact of term limits on shaping how the legislature deals with major issues.
“The authors find that term limits, which remain popular with voters, have eroded legislative capacities in unhelpful ways,” a research brief for the Cain and Kousser report said.
One of those unhelpful ways is experience lost. In the case of California Senate District 11, although neither candidate has history in the Assembly, both have served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Weiner, 46, represents District 8; Kim, 38, represents District 6. Both are attorneys.