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When Initiatives Collide

October 23, 1988|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, at work on a study of state legislative leadership, writes on issues of California government and politics

On Election Day, millions of Californians may find themselves guilty of breaking the law. A little-known section of the state's election code limits voters to no more than 10 minutes in the voting booth--a dire challenge when confronted with 29 state propositions dealing with everything from job safety to automobile insurance.

Why are voters faced with such a brain-numbing set of policy choices on complex legislative issues? The answer begins with greed and weakness and frustration. It is a tale of legislators serving as coat-holders for powerful special interests locked in bloody combat over political and economic turf. Of a governor unwilling to exercise leadership, even in a crisis. Of a system that forces politicians to be more responsive to the demands of groups that fund election campaigns than to constituents' concerns.

The initiative process, begun as a defensive weapon against special-interest domination of the Legislature, has become just another battleground for those interests. Nowhere is that clearer than in the glut of insurance-reform initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The insurance crisis did not sneak up on Sacramento. In the mid-'70s, the skyrocketing costs of medical malpractice insurance led doctors and insurers--two major contributors to California politicians--to pressure the governor and Legislature to enact reform. In 1975, legislation was passed limiting personal-injury damages resulting from malpractice.

The current crisis erupted in 1984, when insurance companies dramatically increased commercial liability insurance rates and cut back on coverage. That led in 1986 to Proposition 51--the so-called "deep pockets" initiative, intended to cut the size of damage awards in personal injury and product-liability cases. But insurance rates didn't go down after 51 passed, as some supporters promised, and the Legislature didn't follow it up with bills to overhaul the state's liability system, as others had predicted.

By the time the next round of insurance wars pitted insurers and trial attorneys against one another over soaring auto premiums, it had become impossible to affect reform through the Legislature.

Why? Because, as Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp observed, "The outrageous escalation of campaign spending has led to legislative breakdown." According to a Consumers Union study, from 1985 through 1987, California's property- and casualty-insurance industry gave legislators almost $3 million in campaign contributions; Gov. George Deukmejian got nearly $500,000. In 1987, the casualty-insurance industry was the largest special-interest political contributor in the state; trial lawyers ranked second. As the Legislature felt growing public pressure to curb insurance costs, there was a concurrent rise in campaign contributions from special interests whose livelihoods would have been affected by such curbs.

The insurance industry pressured legislators to lay off rate regulation and attack the problem instead by limiting auto accident damage awards, either through the introduction of a "no fault" insurance system or by limiting attorneys' fees. That anti-regulation stance found favor in Sacramento with Republicans and some conservative Democrats.

Trial lawyers, arguing that the insurance companies are the real villains, put pressure on the Legislature to cut insurance rates rather than limit payments to accident victims (and to attorneys). The lawyers' legislative allies include Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, Senate President pro tem David Roberti of Los Angeles and other Democrats.

Neither group has the clout to force a legislative settlement favorable to its own interests, but both are powerful enough to block unwanted bills. As a result, legislators were neutralized or polarized by carefully targeted campaign contributions; legislative leaders, loath to alienate major supporters on either side, offered little direction. Deukmejian, meanwhile, remained almost invisible on the issue of insurance reform. The level of public frustration increased dramatically.

On the last day of the 1987 legislative session, sweeping tort reform was rammed through the Legislature--after being hammered out on a napkin at Frank Fat's restaurant near the Capitol by lobbyists for the insurance industry, trial lawyers, doctors and business. Part of the compromise was an agreement among the interests that, for the next five years, they would not push an initiative or legislation to limit lawyers' fees, change the liability laws or regulate insurance rates. But there is an old political axiom: "Always leave 2% for double-cross."

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