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Mixing Signals on Capitol Gridlock

January 01, 1989|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is senior asssociate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

Go-o-o-d morning, Sacramento! Californians have some New Year's resolutions to propose:

-- Balance Proposition 103's attack on soaring insurance premiums with curbs on claim costs and attorney fees.

-- Take responsibility for restructuring the Gann spending limit to fit current budget realities and quit bucking tough fiscal decisions to the voters.

-- Address the issues raised by the FBI sting, initiative mania and the Speakership wars by a comprehensive approach to government reform and not merely cosmetic tinkering.

-- Face the critical questions of what the quality of life in California should be and who should pay for it--and stop ducking complex issues like health care, the environment, toxics, transportation, growth controls and regional government.

How realistic are these resolutions? That's not easy to predict. Because what happens in Sacramento in 1989 will depend primarily on Gov. George Deukmejian, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and the onslaught of reapportionment.

Deukmejian's decision whether or not to seek reelection will influence policy direction. Will he be persuaded to run by advisers who argue he has the best chance to keep the governor's chair Republican and thus prevent a Democratic gerrymander in the 1991 reapportionment?

Or, looking toward retirement, will he opt to abandon his stubborn naysaying and attempt to build a legacy?

Early signals are mixed. After mellowing on Gann limit revisions, he's again mulling wholesale budget chopping.

The pledge that Speaker Brown recently made to ease up on politicking and concentrate on policy-making could also help chart a positive course for state government. Again, signals are mixed--in view of the partisan sniping at Deukmejian's nominee for state treasurer by Brown's lieutenants.

The Speaker's definition of "doing policy" is crucial. Policy-making is not selectively taking over legislators' bills and ramming them through the Assembly. A "boutique" approach to problem-solving is not leadership.

A leader allows lawmakers to nurture their own programs, and then protects their bills through the entire Legislature and the governor's office, too. He stands up to special interests who fund legislative campaigns and then stymie legislative action. (In 1989, the real test will be if Brown opposes the state's trial lawyers, key political supporters, for enactment of comprehensive insurance reform.)

But the strongest influence may be reapportionment. To make policy, legislators have to get elected, and governors need legislative majorities of their own party.

Will Assembly Republicans, led by their confrontational leader, Ross Johnson of La Habra, frustrate policy through partisan, obstructionist games designed to wound the Democratic majority before reapportionment?

Will dissident legislative Democrats quiet down in exchange for a "kinder, gentler" redistricting?

Will incumbents and leaders of both parties opt to play it safe--and not risk any new policy initiatives before reapportionment can assure their continued political survival?

Who can predict whether 1989 will bring an end to Sacramento's political gridlock? The denizens of the state Capitol might prefer to hibernate until reapportionment season. But perhaps, as Assemblyman Richard Katz of Sepulveda speculated, "If more solutions don't start coming out of this place, then no one will be around for reapportionment."

If this prediction doesn't stir some resolve in Sacramento, nothing will.

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