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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 140 : Initiative Cuts More Than Term of Office


SACRAMENTO — Not content to drive most members of the Assembly and state Senate out of their jobs by 1996, backers of Proposition 140 want lawmakers to feel the bite of a dissatisfied electorate even more quickly.

One of two term-limit initiatives on the Nov. 6 ballot, Proposition 140 would immediately remove lawmakers from a retirement system that proponents describe as "overly generous" and "extravagant." Also, effective in July, the measure would slash the Legislature's operating budget by as much as half.

Proposition 140's term limits have gotten most of the attention--six years for Assembly members and eight years for state senators and most other state elected officials. But the other features are also riling incumbent officeholders and legislative staff members, who use terms like brutal and vindictive, Draconian and spiteful to describe the measure's impact and the motivation behind it.

But the principal sponsor of the initiative, Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, says his only objective is to scale down what he regards as an oversized government institution and turn it over to citizen-legislators.

Citing polls in support of limiting the benefits and terms of lawmakers, Schabarum has said repeatedly that people are "fed up" with legislative behavior and the attendant trappings of power.

To discourage those who seek office for its perks, Schabarum has said he deliberately took aim at "the extraordinary privileges and benefits that go with being a member of the Legislature."

Proposition 140 "is intended to take away an extraordinarily generous retirement system and, in so doing, eliminate a very dramatic motivation for folks to stick around," Schabarum said in testimony at a legislative hearing.

"If you don't know it, believe me," Schabarum told lawmakers, "a whole bunch of Californians are sick and tired of the money the Legislature is spending on itself."

Legislators themselves, however, were quick to point out that Schabarum's own salary and retirement benefits as an 18-year member of the County Board of Supervisors are far more lucrative than those for anyone who has served exclusively in the Legislature, whether active or retired.

And opponents contend that the proposed cut in the Legislature's operating budget would lead to massive layoffs and leave the lawmakers dependent for information on executive branch bureaucrats and lobbyists for special interests.

"The Draconian budget cut will absolutely strip the Legislature of its ability to independently evaluate and measure public policy," said Jay Ziegler, spokesman for the No on 131 and 140 campaign.

Proposition 131 would also limit terms but would allow legislators to stay in office longer--12 years for both Assembly and state Senate members. If both pass, the term limits would be set by the one getting the most votes. But other provisions of both would go into effect.

UC Berkeley Prof. Bruce Cain, who chairs the No on 131 and 140 campaign, said the elimination of the pension plan in the Schabarum measure was "part of the vindictiveness" of the initiative.

"Schabarum makes it clear that he is leaving office mad at politics and mad at his colleagues," Cain said.

No one disputes that legislators have a good retirement system.

Lawmakers can retire at any age after 20 years of service and collect full benefits--up to 67% of their highest salary. A veteran legislator retiring this year, for example, would collect $27,211 yearly. Retirement payments automatically increase each year with the consumer price index.

But opponents of Proposition 140 point out that Schabarum's own potential benefits, as one of five members of the County Board of Supervisors, far exceed any payments to career legislators from their retirement system. That is largely because the existing supervisor salary of $94,344 a year is significantly higher than the salary of a legislator, $40,816 a year.

After 18 years on the county board, the 61-year-old Schabarum would receive at least $42,794 a year from the county employee retirement system. Adding five years of credit he earned while serving in the state Assembly could boost that figure by more than $10,000 a year. Opponents contend that his benefits could be as high as $60,000 a year.

Schabarum would not disclose his retirement benefits.

Schabarum, in an article written for The Times opinion pages, contended that "every incumbent" legislator could realize as much as $5,000 to $10,000 a month from the pension program. Officials familiar with the system, however, say that is not the case. They said that some former elected officials can command pensions of that size, but that legislators cannot.

The highest-paid former lawmaker, Assemblyman Lester A. McMillan, a Los Angeles Democrat who left office in 1968, receives a pension of $3,647 a month, or $43,764 a year.

More typical is former Sen. John Foran (D-San Francisco), who retired in 1986 after 22 years of service. His pension is $2,308 a month, or $27,696 a year.

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