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California and the West

Term Limits Distract Returning Legislators

Politics: Session begins with about half the lawmakers facing reelection campaigns or running for another office. Legislating, one says, is 'wasted energy.'


SACRAMENTO — The 1998 legislative session began Monday amid much resolve by Assembly and state Senate members to take on such major tasks as fixing schools and improving health care.

Attention of Republicans and Democrats immediately focused on proposals, including one by Gov. Pete Wilson, to raise billions in bond funds to rebuild and expand dilapidated campuses.

Proponents of reforming managed medical care announced that they would seek an initiative that would for the first time allow patients to sue HMOs for inadequate health care.

But as the new year began, about half the Legislature's 119 current members went to work saddled with a major distraction: salvaging their own careers, many in the face of term limits.

Since the 1997 Legislature recessed four months ago, a federal appeals court in December has upheld term limits, dashing the hopes of many incumbents for a lifetime in office.

Most of the 15 Assembly members whose terms must end at the end of this year are scrambling for seats in the state Senate or Congress. In the Senate, 11 members will be termed-out, some heading for statewide office or Congress.

An additional 21 in both houses, who are not being forced out, are running for other offices anyway. Others, incumbents in swing districts, face hard fights just to stay in office. In all, about 50 legislators are running this year for their political lives.

"I've got one goal in life," said one Assembly member. "That is: Get elected to the Senate." As for the job of legislating in the meantime: "Wasted energy."

Among those forced from office this year will be Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno). Lockyer is a declared candidate for attorney general; Bustamante is contemplating a run for lieutenant governor.

Both said they hope for a smooth transition of their leadership but have set no departure dates, although Bustamante said he foresees handing over his authority by midyear. It takes 41 votes in the 80-member Assembly to be elected speaker.

Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), though not a declared challenger for the job, said he would remain loyal to Bustamante for the sake of Democratic unity in an election year. But Keeley said Bustamante should step aside early in the year if the speaker plans to mount a time-consuming campaign for statewide office.

Others with an interest in succeeding Bustamante include Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly members Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) and Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco).

In the Senate, at least four Democrats are actively seeking to succeed Lockyer, and none claimed Monday to have the 21 votes necessary in the 40-member upper house to win.

They are Sens. John Burton of San Francisco, Patrick Johnston of Stockton, Jim Costa of Fresno and Richard G. Polanco of Los Angeles.

Education is expected to dominate the election-year session. As an indication of the fight to come, Bustamante said he will challenge Wilson on the governor's proposed education ballot initiative that would give more parental power to schools, among other changes.

Wilson, Bustamante said, is offering an education Band-Aid.

Other topics before the Legislature this year:

* Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park), chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said he has no confidence in Wilson or the managed care task force the governor created to reform HMO-type health care. He said he is prepared to go to the ballot with a November initiative that would allow patients to sue the industry for malpractice.

* Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda) said he intends to bring to a vote as early as this month legislation to expand California's 1989 law restricting assault weapons. The measure stalled in the Assembly last year.

* Assembly Democrats were cheered by Wilson's announcement that he would back $8 billion in state school bonds--similar to a bond proposal made last year by Assembly Health Committee Chairwoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael). But Mazzoni said she has no confidence that Republicans will accept as part of a school bond package a lowering of the vote necessary to pass local school bonds from a two-thirds to a simple majority.

Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino said he has supported modified proposals to lower the majority vote in the past, but the problem for most Republicans is that "this directly raises your property taxes."

* Though Wilson vetoed four bills seeking coastal protection, parks and water quality last year, Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) noted that the governor now has a $2.1-billion bond proposal covering much the same ground. Wilson officials denied that there is any contradiction between his bond proposal and the vetoed bills. Bowen said his proposal is "short on details" and will be the subject of serious negotiations over enforcing water quality laws, storm drain runoff, toxic hot spots and preservation of wetlands.

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