SACRAMENTO — The California Legislature, which reconvenes today, has such a poor public image that most voters think it is commonplace for lawmakers to take bribes, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
Voters believe overwhelmingly that most legislators "are for sale" to fat-cat campaign contributors, the survey showed. In fact, voters largely assume that all of state government--the executive as well as legislative branches--"is pretty much run by a few big interests."
Gov. George Deukmejian, beginning his final year in office, is generating only lukewarm support from voters, who have a hard time naming anything that either he or the Legislature has accomplished recently.
Ironically, the governor and the Legislature had their most productive year together in 1989, laboring hard to reach complex agreements on highway improvement, garbage disposal and compensation for injured workers.
But continuing scandal, including a lingering FBI investigation into Capitol political corruption, and the current trial of a state senator on charges of extorting bribes and laundering money, has severely tarnished the image of a state Legislature that only a few years ago was considered a model for the nation.
Even the Deukmejian Administration, which has maintained a relatively clean image throughout most of the governor's two terms, recently has been brushed by the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal.
The poll found that the electorate would support financing political campaigns with tax dollars and eliminating all private contributions. Voters also like the idea of limiting the length of time that legislators and statewide officials can remain in office.
The Times poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, asked 2,046 California adults--including 1,594 registered voters--a series of questions concerning their opinions of the Legislature and state government. The margin of error for the telephone survey, conducted Dec. 2-6, is three percentage points.
Although just one legislator--state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier)--currently faces a formal charge of soliciting bribes, a majority of voters (53%) surveyed by The Times thought that "taking bribes is a relatively common practice" among lawmakers in Sacramento. This was especially true of Los Angeles County voters and Democrats statewide.
Only 38% felt that bribe-taking was "rare." The most trusting were voters in the San Francisco Bay Area and Republicans.
By 2 to 1, voters agreed with the thesis that "most state legislators are for sale to their largest campaign contributors."
And while many veteran politicos and academicians long for what they consider "the good old days" in Sacramento, two-thirds of the voters saw no difference between the current crop of legislators and their predecessors when it came to honesty.
The ugly image extends beyond the chambers of the Legislature, the survey showed. By 2.5 to 1, voters agreed that "state government is pretty much run by a few big interests" rather than "for the benefit of all the people." Again, the most negative views came from Los Angeles County and from Democrats.
Almost half the voters figured that state government pretty much ignores the rank-and-file citizenry, paying "not very much or hardly any attention at all to what the people think when it decides what to do."
And it was a wash, from the voters' view, between which branch of government is the most honest. Democrats thought the Democratic-controlled Legislature the most honest. Conversely, Republicans gave the GOP governor higher marks for honesty.
At any rate, voters estimated on the average that nearly a third of members of both the Legislature and executive branch "got there by using unethical or illegal methods."
Fewer than half the voters surveyed--45%--approved of "the way George Deukmejian is handling his job as governor." The rest were split about evenly between those who disapproved of his performance and people who felt they still did not know enough about the governor--despite his seven years in office--to have formed an opinion.
This job performance rating for Deukmejian was roughly similar to one found two months earlier by a Times poll.
In the latest survey, six in 10 Republican voters approved of Deukmejian, but only one-third of Democrats and independents did. The governor rated high among political conservatives, frequent church-goers, people with higher incomes, those over age 65 and rural voters. He ranked especially low among union members and liberals.
Many voters were at a loss to cite state problems that either the governor or the Legislature had dealt with successfully. Four in 10 could not name a Deukmejian success and half could not cite a legislative accomplishment.