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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Ideas Are Easy; What the State Needs Is Ability

January 05, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), the most powerful member of the Legislature--and arguably the most skilled--will be running for attorney general.

Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), a rookie legislative leader still growing in the job, may well be running for lieutenant governor.

Away from the news cameras and public tours, another handful of plotting legislators will be maneuvering to succeed Lockyer and Bustamante in their coveted posts.

Two or three dozen additional lawmakers will be pulling up stakes and running for some other office, often against former allies in a rough game of musical chairs.

As the final phase of term limits takes hold in 1998, the top priority in the Legislature will be running for political survival--or running toward political opportunity.

Consequently, there's likely to be much less focus on running the public's business--such business as improving schools, reforming HMOs, managing prisons, upgrading the state's water system.

Running the public's business requires leadership, discipline and compromise, not some infusion of "new ideas" as advertised by term limits. Ideas are a dime a dozen. They can be found inside any faculty lounge or cocktail lounge. What's needed in a capital is the ability--the expertise, knowledge and power--to hone and implement the ideas.

And that's tough to come by in a rudderless Legislature where leaders are being rousted by term limits, and where energy is spent on incessant power struggles and job-hunting.

Wait just a minute, say term limit advocates, including Gov. Pete Wilson. The value of fresh blood and new ideas was proved by the productivity of last year's legislative session.

Well, leaving aside the Legislature's pathetic failure to pass a state budget until six weeks past the legal deadline, most of the credit for any productivity belongs to two bullheaded, wily old pros: Lockyer and Wilson, using some very old ideas--intimidation and extortion (veto threats).

*

California's legislators return to Sacramento today with a Christmas present from a federal appeals court that they really didn't want: term limits, guaranteed to remain operational unless overturned by the Supreme Court. That means it's probably good for at least this election year. Ho ho ho!

Truth be known, even many Republicans who asked for term limits--sitting on the public's knee, acting like good little politicians and smiling for the camera--privately would rather not be stuck with the gift they'd requested.

Voters can pass term limits, but they can't repeal human nature. No normal person who enjoys his job really wants to be bumped involuntarily. Not even a Republican.

One story particularly comes to mind. It's about a Senate Republican caucus last April, just after a federal judge had ruled that California's term limits were unconstitutional--a ruling reversed by the appeals court over the holidays.

At the time, there was talk in the Capitol of compromising on a new version of term limits--one with more terms--and offering it to voters. But Senate GOP Leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove, a term limits true believer, wanted to assure his fellow Republicans that nobody targeted to be booted from office under the old law would be spared by a new version. He'd see to that personally.

There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for this pronouncement, however. And after the meeting, one savvy colleague went up to Hurtt and set him straight. "You know, Rob, you're my leader," the GOP senator said, "but a lot of people here would be very happy if term limits just went away. Yours is an opinion you just might want to keep to yourself."

Some things are OK to say in public, but not among friends.

*

Wilson's comments on the subject are refreshing. He argues forcefully for term limits, but admits wishing they didn't affect him. Only fantasizing, he stresses.

"I just regret that I don't have another term," the governor told me, adding: "I don't think I'd have any problem [getting reelected]. The polling I've seen shows I'd beat anybody in the race."

That hypothesizing aside, Wilson contends that term limits keep legislators from becoming too entrenched and more beholden to special interests than to voters. Already under term limits, he says, Assembly Republicans are "vastly superior" to when he first became governor. If the short-timers always are looking for their next job, "So what? It gives them a motivation to be productive."

The problem comes if they're looking for a job from the special interests.

Hopefully, at least, our lawmakers will return with a New Year's resolve to get their work done on time in 1998. There's a new idea.

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