Dan Morain

Dan Morain

By Dan Morain
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 – 12:00 am

The last time the FBI caught a Sacramento politician taking $3,000, California voters lashed out and imposed term limits.

Explaining that he had been out late drinking, the undercover FBI agent worried he might have written out the check for the wrong amount, $3,000, and urged state Sen. Joseph Montoya to “look at that thing real close to be sure.”

As a camera secretly taped him at a restaurant near the Capitol, Montoya quipped that it was for 10 times the agreed-upon amount, “which is all right.” Not amused, jurors in 1990 convicted Montoya. Later that year, campaign consultants played on voter cynicism generated by the bribery scandal.

“A stench of greed and vote-selling hangs over Sacramento because lifetime-in-office incumbents think it’s their government, not yours,” backers said in their official argument for Proposition 140, the term limit initiative.

The so-called reform ended lifetime incumbency but did nothing to alter greed, or the going price. According to the FBI affidavit reported last month by Al Jazeera America in the investigation into state Sen. Ron Calderon, an undercover agent “gave Ronald Calderon a white envelope containing $3,000 in cash” as he drove Calderon to the Miami airport for a return flight to Sacramento. The affidavit alleges that Calderon accepted $88,000, generally in increments of $3,000 and $5,000.

The Legislature had its problems in the 1980s. But term limits were hardly a reform. If anything, the tie between politicians and money is stronger now. Good legislators are forced from office too soon.

Some step down before their tenure is up – sometimes to take lucrative outside jobs, sometimes to extricate themselves from a partisan and dysfunctional place.

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