Out-of-state libertarians are trying to defeat a term limits measure on the June ballot, but so far, they haven't been able to match the financial heft of the coalition of unions and business interests backing it.
Prop. 28 would tweak the current term limits regime by reducing the total amount of time a California legislator can serve from 14 to 12 years, while allowing a legislator to serve any of those years in either the state Assembly or Senate. Currently, under limits set by ballot initiative in 1990, lawmakers can serve a maximum of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.
The campaign supporting the measure has raised more than $2 million from sources that are often rivals: Democratic and Republican donors, labor and business groups, and even a pair of dueling developers. On the other side, opponents of the measure have rustled up only $150,000.
The biggest anti-Prop. 28 contribution came from the Liberty Initiative Fund, a new Virginia-based advocacy organization started by longtime ballot initiative activist Paul Jacob. Jacob doesn't like Mitt Romney much better than Barack Obama and wrote of former President George W. Bush's policies: "Too few of us dubbed it 'socialism' back then."
Jacob said Prop. 28 proponents are "masquerading" as term limit supporters when, in reality, they're trying to weaken them.
"This is a very serious scam being played on the people of California, and we want to do everything we can to alert folks," Jacob said. "If the word gets out, the people will overwhelmingly defeat Prop 28."
The Liberty Initiative Fund started this year "to put measures on the ballot that will expand and protect individual freedom, economic freedom, and that will hold government accountable," Jacob said. It is working on initiative efforts in Colorado, Washington, Arkansas, North Dakota, Montana, Arizona and Nevada. Jacob declined to identify the organization's donors.
"We’re relatively a pretty small player, but we think that’s going to change, and change rapidly," Jacob said.
Howard Rich, a real estate developer famous for funding libertarian causes, gave the opposition effort $45,000. Rich and Jacob are old term limit warriors; Rich founded the group U.S. Term Limits, and Jacob ran it for many years.
Rich has been active in California before. In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a complicated web of advocacy groups with ties to Rich funneled millions of dollars to a ballot measure that would have limited the government's ability to seize private property. The initiative failed.
Opponents of Prop. 28 blast the ballot measure campaign for being bankrolled by "special interests." The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and loans, while Pacific Gas & Electric and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce each gave $100,000.
Former Univision CEO and GOP mega-donor Jerry Perenchio gave $100,000, while liberal billionaire Eli Broad gave $50,000. They usually have more distinct political tastes. Perenchio gave $500,000 to a super political action committee supporting Mitt Romney this year, while Broad gave $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund last year.
Gabriel Sanchez, a spokesman for the Prop. 28 campaign, notes that good-government groups like California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of California also support the measure.
"What we have now is a broken status quo," Sanchez said. "What we have is lawmakers constantly campaigning, looking for the next job."
Sanchez said that under the current system, legislators bounce around from the Senate to the Assembly to other political posts without being able to focus on their jobs. He objected to the notion that the campaign is snookering voters.
"It’s a simple reform," he said. "When voters look at it, I’m sure they’ll have the same conclusion. It’s very clear what it does."
Opponents, though, are especially critical of contributions to the measure from two competing developers. Majestic Realty, owned by Ed Roski, gave $400,000, while L.A. Live Properties – part of Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz's entertainment company AEG – gave $100,000. Anschutz wants to build a professional football stadium in downtown Los Angeles, while Roski aims to build one in the City of Industry.
The two prominent developers used to be partners, working together to develop the Staples Center, and both still own parts of the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings. Anschutz, whom The New Yorker dubbed "The Man Who Owns L.A.," also owns the conservative Weekly Standard.
The two developers have had help from state legislators. In 2009, the Legislature gave Roski's stadium project an exemption from state environmental regulations. Last year, lawmakers voted to fast-track environmental challenges to Anschutz's stadium project.
Jacob, the Prop. 28 opponent, said the fact that the developers then gave money to a measure he believes relaxes limits on legislators just "stinks."
Sanchez called the argument that the developers might be trying to reward lawmakers "completely bogus" because the measure doesn't affect current legislators.
"They’re supporting it the same as we have support from the business community, the labor community and good-government groups – because it’s a sensible law," he said.