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NEWS ANALYSIS : Many Echo State Political Expert's Gloomy Outlook


SACRAMENTO — In a perverse way, it was fitting that on political science professor Larry Berg's last day of work at USC, the state of California seemed to be running aground.

The state Assembly, as usual, was deadlocked in acrimonious combat. Gov. Pete Wilson was off to New England and Iowa, campaigning for President of the United States after promising voters that he would not. California was again entering a new fiscal year without a state budget. Orange County was bankrupt. Los Angeles County was not far behind.

So, Prof. Berg, is this a good time to retire, after 26 years as the founding director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California? After nearly three decades of teaching how government could serve people better?

"You damn right it is!" Berg retorted.

Like many of his contemporaries--conservatives and liberals--Berg went into government and politics in the 1960s fired by the ideal of crafting public policy that would fix some of society's ills.

But as he emptied out his desk at the end of June, Berg lamented a California system of state and local government--once honored as a model for the nation--that appears broken.

"It's a very depressing thing," Berg said. "You spend all your life concerned with the functioning of government, and we have one that doesn't function. . . . I just can't find anyone who is optimistic that we can solve these problems." It is a belief echoed by many of Berg's colleagues.

Mervin Field, the founder of the Field Poll and an observer of California government and politics for half a century, was more blunt: "The state is in real peril." Indeed, experts both within and outside government believe the gridlock that has increasingly gripped Sacramento in recent years is likely to get worse before it gets better.

One of the rare rays of optimism in Sacramento these days emanates from the California Constitution Revision Commission, which is drafting a report for the Legislature recommending potential governmental reforms.

The proposals range from minor tinkering to the very bold. All are designed to make government more functional, to give the various levels of government clear responsibility for their roles, and to make elected officials more accountable to the people.

Perhaps the most far-reaching idea under consideration is to junk California's two-house Legislature and create a single, 120-member unicameral body.

But almost any significant reform means amending the state Constitution. That requires a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature and then ratification by a majority of voters casting ballots in the next general election.

Commission Chairman William Hauck knows that will not be easy. Virtually any alteration in the structure of state and local government involves triggering shifts in political and economic power and the demise of someone's sacred cow. If nothing else, Hauck said, "I want to get these issues on the table."

But politics and government represent more than institutions drafted on paper. Much of the conflict and acrimony that pervades the state Capitol today, the experts say, mirrors changes--demographically, economically, politically, socially and culturally--in California in recent years.

Assemblyman Richard Katz of Sylmar, part of the Democratic leadership team in the lower house, said the struggle being acted out on the Assembly floor each day reflects "all the turmoil in the state: ethnic tension, economic tension, cultural differences."

But while California's population continues to change, the experts noted, the electorate has not. Though the state has become more ethnically diverse, those who vote are increasingly middle-aged and elderly white people. And they are more affluent and less inclined to spend money on government services.

They rejected, for example, a proposed state bond issue last year to finance reconstruction of freeways and other public facilities damaged or destroyed in the Northridge earthquake, as well as a host of other proposed bonds.

This voting trend has given fresh vigor to a growing conservative movement. It hit a high point in 1994 with the reelection of Republican Wilson and a GOP majority in the Assembly, and a virtual standoff in the state Senate.

Two actions led directly to the GOP gains last year and the increasing political polarization of the Legislature this year.

One was the California Supreme Court's redistricting in 1991, at the behest of Wilson, that ended years of legislative districts drawn by Democrats to perpetuate their dominance of the Legislature.

The other was Proposition 140, the initiative approved in 1990, that imposed term limits on legislators. Term limits will be in full effect next year, when veteran lawmakers who have written the legislative agenda in Sacramento for years are forced into retirement or into running for other offices.

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