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'97 Legislative Session: Ugly but Surprisingly Effective

Some hard issues were ignored, but important work was done

September 15, 1997

California lawmakers left Sacramento over the weekend after concluding a 1997 session that often appeared chaotic and inept but somehow managed to get done what had to be done, and considerably more.

Most notably, the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson--for he is an integral player in the process--adopted a balanced $68-billion state budget that provides a major infusion of new money into public education. They overhauled California's welfare program as required by Congress, put together a last-minute, $1-billion-plus package of tax cuts, state employee pay raises and aid to local government and reduced UC and Cal State system tuitions by 5%.

On the other hand, the budget was seven weeks late. Even with new money, California still will lag behind most states in its investment in public schools. No one knows how well the welfare reform program will work. And watching the Republican governor and the Democrat-led Legislature at work--or at war--was often a painful business.

While the process may have been messy, the surprisingly credible product of 1997 exceeded early expectations of all the experts. Consider where Sacramento was as recently as mid-July. The budget already was two weeks late. Even Democrats couldn't agree on welfare reform. And Democrats and Wilson were constantly lobbing political grenades at each other.

Finally, Wilson launched a self-described nuclear weapon that wiped out spending plans financed by a bounty of new state revenues. The governor decided to pay off all at once a $1.3-billion loan from the state employees' retirement system, an obligation that was a legacy of the recession. Suddenly, the candy store was empty.

But then things began to fall into place. Welfare was resolved. An austere--except for education--budget was wrapped up. The Legislature settled down to the rest of its work.

And in a flurry of lawmaking in the final hours of the session, which ended after 7 a.m. Saturday, the Legislature passed significant legislation dealing with gun control, gambling control, an overhaul of the controversial Smog Check II program, reform of the state's Endangered Species Act and children's health. Even groggy legislative leaders and the governor, appearing at a news conference later Saturday morning, seemed awed by the achievements of the final marathon day.

At least a couple of major themes emerged from this session:

* Although he was considered an unpopular lame-duck governor, Wilson used his veto power aggressively to get his way with a Legislature controlled by the opposition party. He demonstrated just how potent a weapon the veto can be, both as a blunt ax against opposing negotiators and as a scalpel to excise what he didn't like.

* The Legislature increasingly is coming to reflect the demographic diversity of California, partly as a result of redistricting related to population shifts and partly because of turnover caused by term limits. Women and Latinos especially have assumed positions of power and are changing the traditional political agenda.

For most of the year, the Legislature dealt largely with the issues that demanded immediate resolution. And despite its productive ending, lawmakers and the governor still failed to grapple with long-term problems that will become a drag on California's future prosperity and social stability if left unresolved--the fiscal strangulation of local government even though there was a modicum of aid this year, a deteriorating transportation system, a lack of visionary planning, and more. That work must begin now.

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