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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Lawmakers' Deficit of Trust Will Hinder Efforts to Fix the Budget Shortfall

January 16, 2003|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — Steve Merksamer, a longtime Capitol hand, chased me down to exclaim that he had figured it out. Figured out "the biggest problem in Sacramento."

Duh, I thought. This projected budget deficit is historic and horrific -- ranging from $35 billion over the next 17 months, if you believe Gov. Gray Davis, down to "only" $26 billion-plus, if you accept the new estimate of nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill.

There is no bigger problem.

Wrong, said Merksamer. That's narrow thinking.

"There is even a bigger problem than the budget crisis," he told me. "And that is the lack of trust that exists. Before there can be a solution to the budget crisis, there has to be some solution to the trust crisis.

"People are going to have to put aside their past grievances -- their slights and hurts -- and check their ideological baggage at the door. The poison rhetoric has to be let out of the system. Get in a room with one another and -- even if they have to hold their nose -- work for the greater good in a way that is bipartisan and respectful," he continued.

"When there's not trust, there's no communication. When there's no communication, people talk in sound bites to people like you.... This is hardball, and that's OK, if they're also having private conversations and trying to resolve the problem. But it's not OK if they're saying the same things privately."

Actually, they haven't been saying much of anything to each other privately.

Merksamer, 55, has worked in and around the Capitol for 36 years, the first 20 in government. A Republican, he was Gov. George Deukmejian's chief of staff. For the last 16 years, he has been senior partner in a big government law and lobby firm.

I asked around, and many agree with Merksamer. He didn't have a brand-new revelation, of course. For years, Capitol denizens have been increasingly frustrated by mistrust. But it seems to be getting worse.

Democrats don't trust Republicans and vice versa. The governor doesn't trust legislators. And they definitely don't trust him.

The latest example of the Legislature's mistrust of Davis is the brouhaha over the deficit size. In the past, even if lawmakers were suspicious of the governor's numbers, they wouldn't instantly assume he was cooking the books. And bellicosely call him a "Chicken Little" trying to force a tax increase, as the GOP has.

But some Democrats don't trust the governor's data either.

"I'm not about to adopt somebody's figures that are unsubstantiated. I don't care whether they come from the governor or God or the moon," says Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), first elected in 1966. "This governor has not demonstrated he's big on trust....

"What's missing in politics today is trust."

"I did trust [Gov.] Pat Brown," recalls Robert Monagan, 82, the Assembly Republican leader when Democrat Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh was speaker in the mid-'60s. "Pat Brown would call me down, prop his feet up and say, 'You guys are all wrong on this thing.' It didn't necessarily solve anything, but we would understand our positions. I liked Pat Brown.

"I wouldn't trust Gray Davis with my false teeth."

Davis isn't the schmoozer that Brown was -- or Gov. Ronald Reagan. Even Govs. Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, for that matter, had better relations with the Legislature.

"I trusted Jess Unruh because I knew exactly where he was coming from," Monagan adds. "Jess and I could argue on the floor of the Assembly and go out to Frank Fat's [restaurant] and have a drink."

There's little inter-party socializing today, and not a lot of intraparty mingling either.

"People can't sit down and simply have a direct conversation and trust what the other person is saying," says second-term Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge). "Neither side of the aisle listens to what the other side is saying. It's political platitudes and sloganeering from both sides."

There are many reasons for all this -- systemic and social: a silly old Jerry Brown political reform that ended lobbyist-hosted socializing. Closed primaries, coupled with gerrymandered redistricting, that favor the election of ideologues. Term limits.

Also: Society has become coarser. Blame radio shock jocks. Blame e-mail. Blame columnists.

"Lack of trust is a reflection of our society," says former Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg, now a lobbyist. "It's not simply a problem of the governing class....

"We'll get through this budget problem. Everybody should chill out -- take a long, cold shower."

Won't happen in this Capitol. Lawmakers wouldn't trust a colleague not to steal their towel.

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