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Legislature Faces Thorny Issues : Ballot Measures Assume State's Political Initiative

January 04, 1988|CARL INGRAM and JERRY GILLAM | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The 1988 Legislature convenes Jan. 4 under the long shadow of proposed ballot initiatives that aim to resolve many of the same controversial issues facing California lawmakers.

Name almost any issue, and there is at least one initiative lined up to deal with it: automobile insurance reform, AIDS, relaxing government spending limits, election campaign financing, shelter for the homeless.

Even some legislators, frustrated by their inability to win approval of their pet bills, are taking to the increasingly well-traveled initiative route.

Poised like a hammer over the heads of legislators are at least 29 proposed initiatives in active circulation, as well as others in the drafting and pre-filing stages. Some have already qualified for the June ballot. In 1982, at least 36 were in circulation at one time.

Some proponents of ballot measures merely want to prod the Legislature into acting while others earnestly seek to enact a law by end-running the lawmakers.

A classic example of an initiative that bulldozed the Legislature into taking action occurred in 1978 when property tax-cutting Proposition 13 forced the lawmakers to enact their own rival measure, Proposition 8. The legislative alternative was crushed at the polls.

Since 1912, when the direct initiative became part of the political scene in California, 645 proposals have been approved for circulation. Of these, 197 qualified for the ballot and 57 were enacted into law, records show.

"There is a tendency of the Legislature to avoid dealing with tough issues," one legislative leader observed. "The threat of an initiative has acted as a spur to the Legislature to deal with thorny issues."

As reelection-conscious legislators start the second half of their two-year session, major issues affecting education, traffic gridlock, AIDS, billions of dollars worth of proposed bond issues, trauma care centers and the high cost of car insurance will be at the top of the public policy agenda.

But likely to dominate the early political agenda will be the debate over confirming Rep. Daniel E. Lungren as Gov. George Deukmejian's nominee to succeed the late Jesse M. Unruh as treasurer, a relatively obscure post that Unruh radically transformed into a formidable political force in the nation's bond markets.

Lungren, a five-term Republican congressman from Deukmejian's hometown of Long Beach, will be the first appointee to a statewide office to undergo confirmation by the Legislature, now controlled by Democrats.

Handicappers at the Capitol give Lungren a preliminary edge, although a stiff Democratic challenge is certain. "They'll put him through the hoops, but I think he will get confirmed by both houses," forecast Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, himself an unsuccessful contender for treasurer.

Bid to Extract Favors

Likewise, Assembly GOP leader Patrick Nolan of Glendale said he believes that Lungren will be approved, although he said he believes that Democrats may try to extract favors from Deukmejian for their favorable votes.

"We'll have a detailed hearing," Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said. "It is not going to be a once-over-lightly confirmation hearing."

In the Assembly, Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said recently that he has heard some good things about Lungren but that the nominee probably faces criticism for his opposition to a federal bill to provide reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Indeed, opposition surfaced late in December when Asian-American individuals and organizations joined to assail his civil rights record.

There is a difference of opinion over what is required to confirm Lungren. Democrats in the Legislature believe that to win approval under a 1976 amendment to the state Constitution, Lungren must be confirmed by both the Assembly and Senate, a position advanced by Democratic Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. Deukmejian maintains that confirmation requires the affirmative vote of only one house.

Major Problems

For a time, the Lungren debate is likely to distract lawmakers from other major problems, some of which they encountered firsthand in their home districts after adjournment of the last session in September.

Take, for example, worsening roadway congestion and increasingly costly automobile insurance, especially in Southern California. Roberti said he and other lawmakers have been swamped with constituent mail demanding lower car insurance rates. During the recess, he and other urban legislators also have discovered traffic gridlock for themselves.

"You don't recognize it until you come home for a long period of time that gridlock in Southern California is horrendous," he said. "To the average citizen, that is obvious. Sometimes you have to come back home and recognize that what is on the people's minds is not necessarily on our minds in Sacramento."

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