Clovis News

Term limits reduce Valley influence in Legislature

Term limits have created a revolving door in Sacramento, where elected representatives come to the state capital, serve a short time in the Legislature, and then find other jobs in or out of politics.

In the two decades since term limits were imposed, however, there has never been the kind of mass exodus that the central San Joaquin Valley faces this year.

Of the nine Assembly or state Senate members serving the region, only one -- Assembly Member Connie Conway of Tulare -- is seeking re-election. Five are termed out. Two others are voluntarily bowing out. One -- Assembly Member Tom Berryhill of Modesto -- is seeking to move up to the state Senate.

Every state lawmaker whose district includes Fresno County will be new.

Political heavyweights such as Clovis Republican Mike Villines, Shafter Democrat Dean Florez and Modesto Republican Dave Cogdill are headed out, and with them is going a considerable amount of legislative clout.

"From a historical perspective, that's going to make it more difficult for the Valley," said Fresno Republican Bill Jones, who served in the Assembly. "It takes awhile to build up the experience and relationships necessary" to push the area's agenda.

The mass turnover is rare, but not unprecedented, said Los Angeles-based political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, who publishes the California Target Book, which analyzes state legislative races.

He said it happened recently in east Los Angeles, when that area's slate of legislators faced simultaneous term limits. And given term limits, Hoffenblum said, it is likely going to become more common.

Veteran Capitol staffer Peter Detwiler, who is with the Senate Local Government Committee, said such events are "clearly an artifact" of term limits, imposed by voters with passage of Proposition 140 in 1990. The law limits Assembly members to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms.

The mass turnover is a concern to the Valley, political experts and legislators said, because the region is already outgunned by Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

"This is a considerable loss," said David Provost, a retired political science professor at California State University, Fresno. "Learning the job the first time, there are are going to be significant disadvantages. There is no question about it."

An example, Provost said, is water, which he called the most critical issue for the region.

The next Legislature could rewrite the state's proposed water bond -- which was removed from the November ballot and could be headed for the 2012 ballot. It is an issue that requires a skilled politician to ensure that the Valley is not shorted in any potential rewrite of the bond, experts said.

"It's hard when you don't know the ropes," Provost said.

He hoped those newbies either know water or know whom to contact to help.

They do, said Linda Halderman, the Republican candidate for the 29th Assembly District. Halderman is seeking to replace Mike Villines, who is facing his term limit.

"Those who served us are not disappearing, just moving on," she said. "They will still be around."

Villines, in fact, could be close by if he is successful in his quest to become the state's insurance commissioner. And Berryhill hopes to stay in town as a member of the state Senate.

Hoffenblum, of California Target Book, also said the effects of mass turnover may be minimal. Because of term limits, he said, first-year legislators can end up as committee chairs. Stars, he said, can rise fast.

Florez agreed.

"I probably wouldn't have had an opportunity to be in the Legislature without term limits," he said. "So I'm not going to sit here and say that term limits are horrific."

That said, he added that it will take "some time for new members to get a real feel for how to move an agenda forward for their constituents, and it could have an impact on getting the rest of the state to focus on Valley-specific issues such as water and transportation."

Juan Arambula, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and is facing his term limit, said members of the new delegation need to "quickly form alliances and form friendships with some of the other newcomers. That's the only way that we survive as a region, is by sticking together."

What would help is getting some local legislators into leadership positions. For that, all eyes are turning to Conway, who will be serving her second term in the Assembly.

Noting the "short window of opportunity," Conway confirmed she is interested in becoming the Assembly Republican leader.

Jones, who served 12 years in the Assembly before being elected Secretary of State, said the Valley has been represented well in leadership positions given its relative numbers among the 120 Assembly members and senators.

"Hopefully people will continue to rise to the top in the leadership roles," said Jones, who was an Assembly Republican leader in the 1990s. "You have a disproportionate effect on policy if you are in leadership. You can amplify your numbers by virtue of leadership positions you can acquire."

Still, there was agreement that the newcomers must get up to speed -- fast.

Conway said there is already an effort to gather all the new legislators together to discuss issues of importance to the Valley.

She feels that the newcomers likely to post victories next month are a strong group, and noted that Halderman and Modesto City Council Member Kristin Olsen both already have experience working in Sacramento.

Halderman, in fact, is currently on leave as policy adviser for state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Penn Valley.

Newcomers who can quickly get up to speed will be needed, Provost said.

"You can't expect Ms. Conway to carry the ball entirely," he said.

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