May 7, 2004 - From the May, 2002 issue

The Consequences Of Sacramento's Revolving Door: Roberti Argues Term Limits Prevent Long Term Planning

The impact of term limits is beginning to be felt in earnest throughout the State Legislature. While some hail the infusion of new blood resulting from term limits, others point to the losses in leadership and long-term infrastructure planning. A long time public servant and veteran of the Legislature, David Roberti firmly opposes term limits and worries about the negative consequences of politics focused on the short-term. MIR was pleased to discuss term limits with Mr. Roberti, as well as his take on the budgeting and the initiative process, L.A. politics, and the media.

Senator, term limits have really had an adverse impact on our State Legislature, our elected officials, and probably on the culture of the institution itself. Since you have been away from the Legislature, give us your perspective on this transition and its implications for our readers.

Term-limits are a real problem in California. And I don't know when the public will awaken and realize that you need to mix new blood, new ideas and new energy with tenured experience and a desire to deal with long-range problems. Until they realize that California will slumber into being second-rate.

It should come as no shock that I was against term limits back when they were first instituted. I am even more so now. A legislature must have institutional memory to know what works and what doesn't. That simply isn't present in today's legislature.

Most people get elected on a very partisan basis. Most people run for office because they have an ideological point of view that they're trying to get across. But the people who push you, motivate you, influence you all come from one side of the fence. It takes time to learn that you must work with the other faces of California.

Whether it's Republicans suddenly realizing that there are people belonging to labor unions or Democrats grudgingly admitting that business employs most people, those realizations take time. It doesn't happen automatically.

Even worse than that however is that term limits defies our ability to deal with long-range problems. Nothing of significance has happened in the last 10 years to address our water problems, a new master plan for higher education or a new way of budgeting our money. These are long-range, strategic, and technical problems that must be dealt with. But who's going to do that? Today's representatives don't have the expertise and they are not going to want to spend their 6 years in the State Legislature working on something that they may not be around to solve. So instead of creating long-term solutions, you create quick, short-term fixes. Long-range problems, therefore, are not a political priority.

So, cancel out any long-range solutions unless the bureaucracy gets hit by lightening. Unfortunately, bureaucracies aren't set up to be hit by lightening.

The critics of the process today in the media and in public meetings don't focus on it exactly the way you do. They tend to come out with a solution that says the initiative process and direct democracy is the answer to the stalemate. Give us your thoughts and tell us about that approach.

I have to start off by saying I'm in favor of the initiative process. But the initiative process really costs us a lot. The worst problem is that we budget through the initiative process.

We deal with bonded indebtedness and budget formulation under the watchful eye of Prop. 13 or Prop. 4-which is even more of a straightjacket than Prop. 13-or even Prop. 98. All of those happened through the initiative process.

Why is it that there hasn't been a UC campus built in, well, forever? Why is it that I'm safe in predicting that there is not going to be one that's built? It's not only because we have a budget problem. It's because that's one area where nobody had the initiative process to take care of the situation.

So the Legislature has discretion there. If you have discretion there and you don't have discretion anywhere else, that's where you're going to cut or that's where you're not going to expand.

What happens is you have minority groups, for example, competing for the crumbs of admission to UC's, instead of having a generous policy-as we've always had in the past-where everybody, if you're capable, can get in. The big reason behind that is that we are not expanding the system, due in large part to the initiative process. It's just terrible.

Why is your position held by so few people? You're a pretty good communicator. Why is it that there is so little deference paid?

Thinking people do in larger numbers share my position. But one of the misfortunes we have in American government today is that people don't spend too much time dwelling on public policy issues. We have people who vote on their first impression. And the first impression of term-limits is great. And direct democracy is great. The second, third and fourth impression however is something that we must now worry about, but no one ever reaches that point.

My position is shared by more people who give some thought and care about California's political process. But it certainly is not shared by a majority of the public.

With reapportionment in this November's election, and given term limits, there could be a two-thirds Democratic landslide in both houses of the Legislature. What's it like to govern and be the leadership of such a majority?

When we had 23 Democrats in the Senate, I was perfectly happy. Now the Senate has never been the partisan minefield that the Assembly is. But, if I lost a couple of Democrats on a vote, I could still pick up a couple of Republicans-either based on geography, philosophy, or whatever-to get things done.

Human nature being what it is, as soon as you have the luxury of not having to be unified, you fall out amongst yourselves. It's inevitable. There's going to be opposition one place or another. And it's best when the opposition comes from the other party as opposed to from your own ranks.

When we got up to 25 in the Senate, I said that's fine. I still fought for Democratic seats and I tried to get the number up to 27. But once we got to 25, it was no longer a top priority to get more Democrats into the Senate, at least it wasn't for me.

So what should we watch for if that happens?

If the number of Democrats gets to be that high in the Senate, the Democrats will begin fighting amongst themselves, the party will become more fractured and all the various divisions-north/south, business Democrats/liberal Democrats-will begin to bicker. Basically, the two-party system will be reflected within the Democratic party and the public will begin to doubt who is on what side.

When it's Democrats versus Republicans, at least those labels give a short-hand view of where people stand on issues. It's not totally correct on all cases, but when you have to pick within the party, the vast majority of people don't make meaningful distinctions.

In 1960, Pat Brown had a blue ribbon commission on metropolitanism. Its preamble was we were a state of 16 million on the way to 30 million by the end of the century, and local government had little capacity to manage that growth. Speaker Hertzberg had a commission on regionalism that just came out with this report, that noted we are a state of 33 million on the way to 45 million in 20-25 years, and we had even less capacity to manage that growth. Five years from now, what's the report going to say when we're 37-38 million on the way to 50 million? How do we get ourselves out of this growth phenomenon?

We haven't managed the growth. There are all kinds of things we can do-infill, brownfields development, etc. And while there are a whole host of questions urban areas must address, there has to be some regional solution to the problem. How do you manage growth when you have crazy quilt boundaries between municipalities? Today's jurisdictions are almost like a contest of who created the most irrational boundaries and overlapping jurisdictions.


In my opinion, Santa Clara County has the worst boundaries. I hope that that makes L.A. County people feel good, but unfortunately L.A. and Orange Counties come in a close second and third. We have no regional approach to anything in the state.

We need some heroes in local government who are willing to make some sacrifices in their political careers. Maybe that's one good thing about term-limits. The career won't be as attractive anymore so you're willing to make those sacrifices for regional needs.

A year ago, you ran a campaign for local office. Tell us what you learned going through that campaign.

The context is a lot different at the local level than at the state level. I can't say I learned that, I knew that. But the overriding importance of that context is great.

I don't want to sound like sour grapes and I'm opposed to secession, but Downtown L.A. is a pretty closed shop. That's not so bad when you talk about a candidate running for office, because you take your chances with it and you're in public. But if it's a closed shop when you talk about an average citizen who wants to petition government, then that becomes a problem. That feeds discontent. And that is probably the most valuable lesson I learned.

If you were a commentator watching the next six months play themselves out in the secession debate, leading to the November election, give us some commentary of what you think you're going to see happen here, the nature of the arguments and the debate.

There are an awful lot of people who are going to be talking up their frustrations about how they tried to get to City Hall, but found it closed off. So if secession is going to be defeated, it's going to be defeated solely on a financial basis, which is sad because you would hope that it would be defeated based on the ideal of one city, united and together. But when it comes to splitting up the city, you take what you can get any way you can get it.

And your prediction today?

My prediction on Valley secession, at this point I'd flip a coin. I think the Valley will vote to secede, but the issue is whether the rest of the city will let them go. That's what will make it close. Hollywood will be a little less close.

So let's segue into the press coverage of politics. Your comments?

Press coverage of politics is terrible. Everything is a horse race. The headlines of every newspaper is about such-and-such a poll. And the poll is based on voters' responses before they have focused on the issue. I'm not saying the poll is incorrect, but it's like you're buying oranges, but taking a poll about apples.

There's a huge difference between how a person is going to vote when he or she focuses and how that person is going to vote on a given question, even a quick question, that they haven't focused on. But the press sure loves polls.

The other thing they focus on is how much money you've raised. It's some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. We passed campaign reform in order to create a shame list-the people who've raised all the money from the special interests are on the shame list. The whole idea was to create shame on people who were getting special interest money and unfortunately it backfired.

According to the media, the shame list is not the people who have taken the money, it is those who haven't raised the money. The good headlines go to people who raise money regardless of where it comes from. But the press loves that too.

So media coverage can be summed up in polls and the inverse shame list. If you haven't raised your money by the time the headlines come out, you're in real trouble.

So who are the electeds that you pay attention to or keep your eye on around the state that offer you some hope that we're going to work ourselves through these challenges?

Being on the California Integrated Waste Management Board I've been working a lot on environmental issues. And the people who I've worked with are Senators Sher, Escutia, Romero, and Torlakson and Asm. Pavley. They've all done a pretty good job in this area.

I still have my instinctive liberal under-girding however, so I must also include Sen. Burton because he is a necessity because he keeps the flag waving of what the Democratic Party should be about. You don't get too much of that at the national level anymore, and there isn't anyone but him at the state level. So you need a curmudgeon like him to say some things that need to be said every once in a while.

Any local officials?

Everybody comes and goes so fast that it's hard to say everybody's really relatively new. It's hard to point out. For example, it's different for someone how they react when you've got budget deficits and how you react when things are flush. The Board of Supervisors does fairly well for a body that's strapped for cash.

If you were President pro Tem and you had a $25 billion shortfall, what would you be doing today?

You're stuck in place because the only areas you can really move on are welfare and higher education. Maybe I'd borrow. I'd probably borrow to the extent that I could, and try to do an across the board cutback that's not tailored to individual problems. At least that way it doesn't single out those things that have no protection under the law.

Welfare is one of those places that is not protected under the law. But I'm not a big proponent of cutting back on welfare-how can you cut back on welfare when you have unemployment? Unemployment is pretty high in California now and it's been going up. You should only be allowed to talk about cutting welfare when you have an optimum system of full employment.

So I go back to my thought of an across-the-board cut. Or, you could raise taxes! Maybe the Legislature is ready to do so. I have my doubts.


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