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Term limits ballot measure attracts big-money donors, little else

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SACRAMENTO – More than 17 million Californians took the time to register to vote. About 726,000 of them stopped long enough to sign a petition putting Proposition 28 on tomorrow's ballot.

But in a signal of just how insular the state's political process has become, not a single person who could be considered a run-of-the-mill, "ordinary" voter has donated to Prop. 28, recent campaign filings show.

Out of $2.2 million raised to support Prop. 28 [PDF], which would change the state's term limits law, the smallest contribution from an individual donor is $1,000, and the highest reaches up to $100,000. Big special interest groups – including labor unions – made up the bulk of the donations. 

Individual donors gave $317,000 – a group of 15 people that includes attorneys, investment managers, real estate developers, business owners and CEOs. Among those was $50,000 from housing and insurance mogul Eli Broad and $100,000 from Jerry Perenchio, former chairman and CEO of Univision.

Campaign contributions to support the other initiative on tomorrow's ballot – like Proposition 29, which would increase the state cigarette tax – are a bit different. But not by much.

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With contributions as small as $50, campaign donors for Prop. 29 represent a diverse group of more than 200 Californians, including retirees, homemakers, school psychologists, professors, and even a yoga teacher, pastor and interior designer.

It is not surprising that voters have taken a stronger interest in an initiative that they think would have a more direct impact on their lives, said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

“Anybody who does regular work with the Legislature understands what chaos is up there,” said Cain, a California politics expert based in Washington, D.C. “If you don’t see the chaos, you don’t really know.”

Issues such as gay marriage and immigration attract a lot of small donations from voters because “these are issues they can relate to that affect their everyday life,” Cain said.

“The average person just doesn’t know much about or care much about how the Legislature is organized or what it does,” he added. “It doesn’t resonate with them.”

The term limits proposition becomes even more complicated for voters with the actual increase in the amount of time a legislator can spend in either the Assembly or state Senate, Cain said. While total time is reduced from 14 years to 12, Prop. 28 would allow legislators to spend all 12 years in one house – whereas currently, lawmakers can spend up to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.

“That is way too subtle for most voters,” Cain said. “Then they have to really understand – that’s when their eyes glaze over.”

But with a slight drop in voter support over the past couple of months, some policy analysts say voters might be starting to understand the entire text of the proposition more fully.

“Maybe some people have discovered something that they may not like about it,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. “Given that the lawmaker can spend more time in the Assembly or Senate than before … one would have to assume that that would be the thing that would give some people pause.”

Voter support of Prop. 28 dropped to 62 percent in May [PDF] from 68 percent in March [PDF], according to surveys from the Public Policy Institute of California – a change that Baldassare called “not really very significant.” It is fairly typical to see a decline in initiative support leading up to an election, he added.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a Prop. 28 advocate, agreed that the recent change in voter support is typical of any initiative as Election Day approaches. Schnur said he remains confident that the proposition will pass.

“(Voters) support shrinking those limits and also providing sort of a little bit more stability in the state Legislature,” said Schnur, who led the 1990 term limits initiative as spokesman for the California Republican Party. “They also like the idea of a state government that can function. They like this initiative because it gives them the best of both worlds – shorter term limits and less disruption.”

The disruption, he said, is the “office-hopping that takes place at the Capitol now.”

Schnur acknowledged that initiatives focused on government reform tend to attract more attention from “people that have had some direct involvement in politics or government.” But, compared with the opposition’s campaign contributions, donations for the proposition have “reflected a fairly broad base of support,” he said.

To date, the campaign against Prop. 28, Californians for Term Limits, has raised about $835,000 from four sources.

“We have a broad spectrum of supporters that support the organizations that have made contributions to this measure,” said Jon Fleischman, co-chairman of Californians for Term Limits and publisher of the conservative blog FlashReport.  

Fleischman said the campaign has not solicited individual donations to keep people from being personally targeted, as Prop. 28’s opposition is “literally crossing swords with the most powerful politicians in the country.”

“Nobody’s waking up or going to sleep at night with a burning passion to strike down politicians' careers,” he said. “We don’t ask people to put themselves in risk’s way as we poke the hornets' nest at the Capitol.”

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