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Changing of the Guard : Term Limits, GOP Gains in Assembly Prompt Longtime Staffers to Move to Greener Pastures

March 16, 1995|JERRY GILLAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — For many years, the California Assembly has taken pride in its stable of experienced and well-paid professional staff, the knowledgeable legislative bureaucrats who never make headlines but whose wisdom and counsel are invaluable in helping elected leaders make laws.

But now, as the Assembly undergoes fundamental changes caused by term limits and a bitter speakership fight, there is a "brain drain" occurring, according to lower house Democrats, who have drawn attention to the flight.

At least half a dozen top veteran Assembly staffers have left their jobs and more are expected to follow. Although the Assembly employs hundreds of people, those who have departed are among the two dozen or so who hold top-level committee positions.

Several have moved to the Senate, where the deadline of term limits is less severe, or have left to become Capitol lobbyists. Most worked for Democrats, who during their long Assembly reign controlled most committees, which in turn led to stability and continuity among committee consultants and staffers.

Not surprisingly, Republicans hold a different view. The Democrats' brain drain is the Republicans' big break.

"Term limits not only brought new blood into the Assembly," said GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, "but also into the Assembly staff ranks. The new Republican (committee chairmen) are hiring staff that reflects the principles and values that have long been lacking in the Assembly. We will be expanding GOP staff with pro-free enterprise and anti-big government staffers to help change the future direction of California."

Some legislators argue that the loss of top staff members is particularly significant in light of term limits. Those staffers' accumulated institutional knowledge and savvy about the sometimes arcane and often complex dealings of the Legislature--in a sense they are the connective tissue that holds the place together--becomes more important as veteran Assembly members are tossed out by term limits and replaced with waves of newcomers, who themselves are instant lame ducks.

Already more than half of the 80-member Assembly consists of those who have been there only since 1992. By law, the longest they can serve is six years.

"To match all of the new Assembly members (28 freshmen elected in November), we also have a lot of new staff people coming on board," said veteran Assemblyman Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, who is concerned about staffers leaving. "It takes time to build up expertise in the various subject areas, and we have lost some good ones to the Senate. Fortunately, so far on the committee I chair we have been able to hold the three consultants who have many years of expertise in the natural resources field."

Harder to discern is who fills the information vacuum. As formerly stable staff positions become revolving doors and longevity is diminished, where do inexperienced lawmakers and staffers turn for help? The answer, at least in part, is to lobbyists, whose ranks include growing numbers of ex-lawmakers and legislative staffers. What is unclear and is the focus of much debate at the Capitol is whether lobbyists will exert more influence now that most veteran legislators are gone.

Thirty-five years ago, it was the lobbyists' power that led the late Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh to reshape the lower house staff by raising job standards and pay and giving the staffers responsibility for drafting and analyzing legislation.

At that time, it was common for lobbyists to regularly wine and dine lawmakers, draft bills, have them introduced by friendly legislators without independent examination, and essentially take charge of guiding the measures to passage. Many of those practices are now restricted by law or are subject to careful scrutiny by legislative staffers.

Some who work in the Capitol believe the brain drain will be temporary, and that for each veteran staffer who leaves, opportunities open for others, particularly Republican staffers.

"(The exodus) doesn't mean we won't be able to find other staff people of equal or greater intellectual capacity, but it's going to take a while," said one legislative source, who declined to be identified. "Everyone can be replaced, but there is a definite learning curve around here, so there's going to be a difficult transition period."

There are lobbyists who disagree with the notion that they will become more influential. One is Dennis Carpenter, a former Orange County Republican senator, whose respected firm is among the top revenue producers at the Capitol.

"It's too early to draw that conclusion," Carpenter said. "There are some changes being made that have logic to them because of the increased stability offered by the Senate under term limits. But there still is a lot of talent within the Assembly staff ranks, and more new talent will continue to come along."

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