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The State : Have the Term-Limit Babies Broken Up Sacramento's Gridlock? : Legislature: The budget was passed on time and workers' comp reformed. But partisanship may get uglier and the Assembly may lose clout.

July 25, 1993|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School.

The 1992 elections produced probably the largest and most diverse freshman class in the history of the Assembly--27 new members. In part, this first generation of law makers facing term limits imposed by Proposition 140 owed their election to a reapportionment that offered up a bonanza of open seats. But every freshman legislator understood that he or she was swept into office by a cresting wave of voter frustration with policy gridlock in Sacramento and anger over last summer's 63-day budget fracas. Every new lawmaker promised that--if elected--he or she would never let that lunacy happen again.

And, lo and behold, for the first time since 1986, California had a budget in place before the beginning of the new fiscal year--with about three hours to spare. Then the longstanding stalemate over workers' compensation reform ended in a burst of bipartisan cooperation.

Was it the freshmen who broke the curse of Sacramento business-as-usual? Are term limits making a difference?

Newcomers and veteran legislators agree that it's too early to judge the effect the freshmen will have on policy. Every lawmaker's first year is spent figuring out the Capitol.

The compromise on workers' comp owes much to economic pain and to the desire of veteran politicians to build a record to run on--for reelection or for another office. And don't read too much into the role of freshmen in this year's budget. As one senior legislator insisted, getting a budget out on time "would have happened without turnover" because "everybody got burned last year."

Nonetheless, the behavior of the new class offers some clues as to what might happen to politics and policy, as legislators adapt to the parameters of term limits. Early indications are that no one should expect radical improvement in the way things get done. As newcomers navigate their way through the legislative process, they are beginning, in one lawmaker's description, to "play the same roles as their elders." There are "pragmatists, ideologues, doers and deal-cutters."

Despite pledges to end politics-as-usual and loosen the grip of special interests and their campaign contributions on Sacramento, the freshmen are keeping pace with the veterans in courting lobbyists and their money. They have to. A recent Common Cause study showed that 92% of the winners in open Assembly seats last year outspent their opponents. The victors raised an average of $378,000 and ended their campaigns with an average debt of $58,400.

Mix that reality with the prediction of one senior leader that, in time, term limits will render the Assembly "less capable of analyzing things and coming to conclusions," with "issues framed more by outsiders rather than by legislators." You get a recipe for continued gridlock.

Control exercised by Assembly committee chairs is already under fire by freshmen too impatient to slow down for seniority, unwilling to play by the old rules or even to figure them out. That has made the committee system less stable and predictable. It is, bemoaned one committee chair, "hard to count votes."

If beneficial bills are wrested from the clutches of old-timers too long in thrall to special interests, that could improve the process. But a committee chairman known for blocking "smelly" bills observed, "As a chair voting 'no,' I have freshmen voting 'yes' more quickly. They have no sense of the institution, less willingness to defer. That doesn't necessarily make for better policy-making."

The double whammy of term limits and the 1991 reapportionment may make the mischiefs of legislative factionalism even worse. Freshmen can behave as much like creatures of partisanship as senior legislators. After all their anti-gridlock rhetoric, newcomers voted along party lines on Willie Brown's speakership and on Gov. Pete Wilson's failed nomination of Marion Bergeson for superintendent of public instruction. And they didn't stray very far from the partisan reservation on budget bills.

Party caucuses have grown increasingly antagonistic over the years and political feuding between Democrats and Republicans has become bitter and personal. Newcomers aren't carrying much of that baggage. But things could--and probably will--get worse. Here's why.

Term limits ended the ability of incumbents to become entrenched. Then the Supreme Court-drawn reapportionment erased their safe seats. To create more logical districts, the court "nested" two adjoining Assembly seats in each Senate district. That set up 40 potential rivalries among Assembly members, many from the same political party, who know that they will be felled by term limits and may decide that an alternative to political death is to move to the upper house.

Already, the tension among lawmakers created by this new political dynamic has further stressed a balkanized Legislature. Old and new members have begun choosing up sides on issues and casting votes on bills according to who might run against whom for what and when.

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