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CALIFORNIA : The Withering Away of State Government

June 04, 1995|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

The Capitol is strangely quiet. Gridlock has given way to suspended animation.

Sure, the Legislature still meets. Sure, bills are moving here and there; recently, Gov. Pete Wilson even signed some. The May revision of the governor's budget, frequently the impetus for partisan wrangling, was released, though the media hardly took notice. A budget may well be passed.

But with respect to policy-making, the legislative session has ended. Sacramento politicians just want to get out unscathed.

The next election campaign--1996 for some, 1995 for others--has begun. That has created a leadership vacuum in the Capitol, spawning a hundred different game plans. That has also brought into bold relief the death throes of the pre-term-limits legislative system.

The impact of Wilson's foray into presidential politics is evident in his legislative score card: His Republican agenda is in shambles. And it's not because he's had no voice to cheer it on.

Several of the governor's major proposals, including tort reform, tax cuts and scaling down the Endangered Species Act, have suffered setbacks. Wilson's rocky legislative performance is partly due to a narrow Democratic majority in the state Senate and a fragile balance of power between Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly. Also, Wilson, his national aspirations aside, is just another lame-duck, term-limited governor. His waning influence is part of the natural order of politics.

Still, Wilson's struggling presidential campaign has redirected his energy and focus away from Sacramento. Frankly, there's no way Wilson can do California policy while traipsing around Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington.

Media interest in Wilson's maneuvering and a front-loaded presidential nominating process obscures the fact that California's legislative and congressional primaries have moved up, too--from June to March, 1996. That is causing lawmakers to spend their Sacramento time raising money rather than making policy.

Jockeying has already begun among potential candidates for a slew of legislative seats that will be vacated in the first wave of departures triggered by term limits. State lawmakers are also looking longingly at Congress, particularly now that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken congressional term limits out of play--at least for the time being. Some are lying low, waiting for an open seat; others, faced with legislative termination, are looking to challenge incumbents. Sacramento, notably the Assembly, may wind up as a way station on the road to Washington.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is facing his own legislative mortality. He may set his heart on San Francisco, but he will continue to cast a long shadow over Sacramento.

While Brown holds an Assembly seat, he will never be a backbencher. He's already proved he can run rings around his less-experienced Republican colleagues. He's the only leader lower- house Democrats have and he can continue to drive their budget negotiations.

The levels of partisanship and distrust that marked his tenure as Speaker will continue to affect the legislative process. As Brown begins to release his grip, he will leave behind legislators on both sides of the aisle who don't know how to operate without strong leadership, legislators who are frustrated by it and don't want a strong Speaker, and legislators who want to be a strong Speaker.

Who will fill the power vacuum?

With the successful ouster of maverick Paul V. Horcher, the Republican-turned-Independent who enabled Brown to hold on to the speakership, California has witnessed the inauguration of a new disciplinary tool--the recall election. Assembly GOP leader Jim Brulte and Wilson were active participants in Horcher's punishment.

Ironically, reliance on this electoral technique could force another round of power-sharing, this time between legislative leaders and campaign consultants who dominate recall politics. Support in special elections, which are becoming more frequent as lawmakers office-hop to beat the term-limit clock, may provide leaders another means to keep caucus members in line. But as long as legislative power remains fragmented, taking sides could lead to retribution by disgruntled colleagues.

Whether Brulte can corral enough votes to install himself as Assembly Speaker when the GOP seat count reaches 40 (presumably after Tuesday's election to fill the seat vacated by now-Sen. Richard L. Mountjoy) will depend a lot on Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress). Brulte endorsed her chief opponent, Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton), in a special election to replace state Sen. Marian Bergeson. An enraged Allen is now refusing to support Brulte.

The power-sharing arrangement brokered by Brown and Brulte last January has not only destabilized the lower house. It has, in effect, created a three -house Legislature: the conservative Assembly Republican caucus, the moderate-to-liberal Assembly Democratic caucus and the less-polarized Senate.

Talk about a system of checks and balances: With neither Republicans nor Democrats controlling 41 votes (and committee membership equally divided), no legislation can be passed out of the Assembly, let alone clear a committee, on a straight party-line vote. In a body where partisanship has ossified into bicameralism, compromise is rare.

That means, says Senate GOP leader Ken Maddy, "that only very, very non-controversial bills are coming out of the Legislature on [the Assembly] side . . . our [Senate] plans have changed as a result of that confusion."

What to make of all this? It's like my Grandpappy used to say: If you dangle a carrot in front of a mule, and use the threat of a stick from behind, you can move even the most stubborn animal. That's leadership.

Without the prospect of reward--or fear of punishment--progress toward a goal is nearly impossible. Right now, that's Sacramento.

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