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A Record for Willie Brown but a Loss for Public Policy

March 20, 1988|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe directs the Study of State Legislative Leadership at USC's Institute of Politics and Government.

Willie Brown has now surpassed Jesse Unruh's record for longevity as Speaker of the California Assembly. The legislative environment has changed since Brown entered the Assembly as a liberal activist during the Unruh era in 1964. And so has Brown.

It has been said that "France has changed Francois Mitterrand more than he has changed France." Closer to home, California politics has changed Willie Brown more than he has changed California. And Brown's example should concern Californians, because he is the quintessence of this state's political system.

Long-term policy deliberation has takes a back seat to short-term deal-making. Brown's Speakership reflects an environment where bickering and sniping delay action and where trust is so lacking that even "done deals"--like the recent one between Gov. George Deukmejian and the Legislature sending a record $5.3 billion in bond issues onto the ballot--can wobble or stall.

A Sacramento hand since the Unruh Speakership insists, "Of all the sessions in recent memory, this has been the least productive." But blaming the shambles in the California policy process solely on its most visible symbol is wrong. It is no more fair to attribute the policy accomplishments of California's "glory days" of the '60s solely to Unruh skill.

Unruh became Speaker during a time of economic growth in the state. There was money for public programs and public opinion supported government initiatives. In his early terms as Speaker, Willie Brown faced slower economic growth and fiscal retrenchment.

Over the years the economic climate brightened. Now, however, the state has come up against the spending limits of the Gann Initiative, the 1979 measure limiting public spending to a formula based on population growth and inflation. The resources for public-policy leadership are there, but neither the governor nor the Legislature has shown the political courage to free the state from the constraints of the indiscriminate Gann "pay-as-you-go" cap on spending.

Unruh crafted the tools of the modern Speakership--an independent, full-time Legislature, a strong staff, centralized electoral and fund-raising power; Brown has become the prisoner of these tools. He--and the entire legislative process--are the victims of some unintended consequences of reform.

The full-time Legislature has spawned a new breed of political careerist whose only profession is politics and whose main goal is job security. It has always been the job of the Speaker to protect his majority; now it is his primary function. The electoral stakes are so high because people's livelihoods are at stake. The ante for maintaining office has soared --legislative campaign costs reached $57.1 million in 1986. The demands on the Speaker to use his fund-raising clout have escalated accordingly--and so has the need for "creative financing."

This means heavy reliance on contributions from special-interest political-action committees, businesses and labor unions (53% of the contributions to 1986 legislative races), which frequently have business before the Legislature. It means increased importance for the fastest growing source of campaign financing--fund transfers between candidates, largely by party caucuses and legislative leaders (38% of the 1986 total).

Once in office, careerists tend to lay low, not rocking public opinion and protecting the status quo. That is true of governors as well as legislators, leaders as well as followers. And therein lies another difference between Brown's Speakership and those of his predecessors, yet another reason for fewer long-range policy initiatives.

Unruh, Robert Moretti and Leo T. McCarthy (now lieutenant governor), former Speakers with broader public agendas than Brown, all planned to move on to higher office; they used the leadership position to establish policy records.

Today in Sacramento there is no sense of destination. One observer described an Administration and a Legislature which are "drifting." Neither the governor nor the Speaker has shown electoral ambitions beyond his current office and neither has developed a policy agenda necessary to run for higher office.

There is a recognition, even among Republican legislators, that Deukmejian is not facing political or economic reality. Several opposed Deukmejian and GOP Assembly leader Pat Nolan of Glendale on funding transportation needs with bonds rather than with the gas tax. They argued that it would lead to deficit spending--that classic Republican bugaboo.

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