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California Politics Can't Survive on a Steady Diet of Naysaying : Government: Voters know what they don't want, not what they do want. Unicameralism, a part-time Legislature and a 51st state are among the options.

February 16, 1992|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School.

Frustrated by a system of government that has failed them, Californians have used the initiative process to dismantle it. They don't want powerful legislative leaders. They don't want entrenched, unaccountable incumbents. They don't want policy gridlock, but they don't want government to spend too much, either.

But there's no indication Californians know what they do want. And nobody has a clue as to what will work--or what can work in the state's economic and political environment.

Ask Boris N. Yeltsin what that means. He has had no satisfactory answer for the most basic political question: "What have you done for me lately?" As a result, his popularity has been sliding.

Gov. Pete Wilson's problems are not unlike those of Yeltsin. Wilson, too, has proposed changes in government direction and fundamental reforms. He, too, sees his leadership threatened by declining political support and inadequate economic resources.

Wilson wants a governmental system structured around increased executive power, in areas like growth management, the environment and budget policy. He wants a Legislature less independent of him and more to his ideological liking.

Recurring talk of an initiative to return the Legislature to part-time status plays into this scenario. If lawmakers aren't in Sacramento, proponents argue, they can't muck up government. But is a strong executive, who may or may not have a sense of the common good, any solution?

A more radical reform making the State Capitol rounds is unicameralism. In the early '70s, a one-house Legislature was championed by former Speaker Jesse M. Unruh as a means to strengthen that body's position against the executive.

Last year, unicameralism became part of a strategy by state Sen. Lucy Killea to clean up the Legislature's image. It also provided a way for the newly re-registered Independent to distance herself from the Sacramento "swamp."

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature. Passed in 1934, the legislation establishing it was part of a deal brokered with proponents of two popular ballot issues, Prohibition repeal and legalized pari-mutuel horse racing. As a Nebraska politician observed, "Thanks to the gamblers and the drinkers, Nebraska has its one-house legislature"--proving that reform, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.

By definition, a one-house legislature would cut down on inter-house squabbling. That would be a plus. But it might also increase the number of smelly bills put on a fast track without adequate scrutiny and debate.

It could make it more difficult for special-interest groups to stymie legislation by pitting one committee or one house against another. But it could cut off alternate access for weaker groups.

That was one reason why Unruh recanted unicameralism. He also became nervous about concentrating so much power in the hands of just one legislative leader--particularly when it wouldn't be him. Picture a one-house legislature with Speaker Willie Brown in charge.

A proposal to replace California's current system with a 300-member, unicameral parliament, in which major and minor parties are represented proportionally, drew applause from academics attending a recent California Studies conference. When political scientists cheer, be wary.

Sure, increasing the size of the Legislature would mean smaller districts and more hands-on representation. But it would also mean proliferating campaigns and demands for political money. Would increased special-interest spending to put more politicians in office cure our current ills? Would the parliamentary model of an executive--a governor controlling public policy and exercising political leadership, based on continued support by a legislative majority--work for California?

Wilson hasn't gotten control of his own minority party in this Legislature. In a parliamentary system, it would be " Hasta la vista , Pete"--unless the governor could successfully bargain with other, smaller parties for their support.

Then there is the proposal to divide California into two states. Since the 19th Century, disgruntled citizens, dissident groups or politicians looking for a cause or publicity, have floated various plans. The most recent is by Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Redding), whose district, which includes nine rural counties, would be in the heart of the new state.

Cynics dismiss Statham's proposal as a crass political ploy. The media treats the "51st state" idea as a lark, or just plain silly. So do many elected officials, particularly those from Southern California.

The most recent California Poll shows that only 25% of the public approve of splitting California. And the road through the Legislature and Congress to statehood is arduous. So it's easy to snicker.

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