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Low Hopes in Sacramento

January 04, 1998

The 1997 session of the California Legislature began a year ago with little expectation of major achievement. It ended nine months later with a flurry of significant law-making that surprised even the lawmakers themselves.

The 1998 session opens Monday with expectations running even lower than a year ago, if that's possible. The experts are predicting a session rife with election-year partisanship, as all 80 Assembly seats ad 20 of the 40 Senate seats are at stake. And both houses are expected to be gripped by intramural struggles over the top leadership positions, which are now held by Democrats who, under term limits, must leave at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Legislature may be limited in proposing costly initiatives. Much of the expected budget surplus being generated by a healthy California economy is already committed. A state income tax cut, increased state support for the courts and a new child health program are among the measures adopted in 1997 but scheduled to be financed by the 1998-99 budget. The tab for that package is nearly $1.5 billion.

As 1997 demonstrated, however, reality sometimes can overcome expectations. Law-makers in past sessions have surprised pundits with election-year productivity, perhaps with good intentions, perhaps just padding their campaign biographies with as many achievements as they can.

Much will depend on the agenda that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson lays out in his final State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature Wednesday evening. Additional details will be revealed when Wilson sends his proposed 1998-99 budget to lawmakers Jan.9

The governor has succeeded so far in escaping the label of lame duck and the relative political impotence that many chief executives suffer as their tenure nears an end. He firmly controlled the agenda in 1997 with his veto power over legislation, and there is no reason to think he cannot do so again in 1998.

Yet for all the complications facing lawmakers this year, there still will be plently of time and opportunity for legislating, and there's much that can be done. Wilson and Demoratic leaders both talk of future programs to improve public schools, and a crying need exists for a statewide school construction program to be presented to voters this year.

Other issues before the Legislature include programs to fight juvenile crime, additional prisons, reform of health care systems and whether to restore the renters' tax credit suspended during the recent recession. Some good work has already been done. The $450-million state takeover of most court costs will substantially ease the fiscal burden of California's 58 counties.

But the Legislature still needs to do more to untangle the tortured fiscal relationship between state and local governments that has severly hampered the ability of cities and counties to pay for needed local services. This would be a significant year--the 20th anniversary of voter passage of Proposition 13--to begin this effort.

Expectations for the 1998 Legislature may be low at this point, but the opportunity for achievement is virtually unlimited.

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