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High-Stakes Amateur Hour

May 19, 2003

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is candid about the difference in his effectiveness this year compared with last. Then, he was learning on the job as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which is how it works in Sacramento these days. It took time to learn the serpentine budget process. "I was really new to it and going on instinct," Steinberg said. Now, respected and at the top of his game, he is a key figure in the painful crafting of a hard-times state budget. After next year, pfft, he's gone, forced from the Assembly by the state's term limits law. Enter the next amateur in the fiendishly complex appropriations process.

This is life under term limits, the toughest in the nation, imposed by an initiative measure that was approved narrowly by voters in 1990. It limits Assembly members to six years of service and senators to eight.

You could blame Willie Brown. The most vociferous sponsors of term limits made then-Assembly Speaker Brown their lightning rod after he jokingly called himself the "ayatollah of the Assembly." But aside from its tinge of racism directed at the African American Brown, the campaign portraying political bosses catering only to special interests was cartoonishly exaggerated. The promised era of citizen politicians who would serve and return home was simply untrue.

California still has professional politicians, some of whom are campaigning for their next office from the day they hit Sacramento. Assembly members know exactly how long they can serve and they know exactly when the next office they seek will become vacant. Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson of Culver City, a former county supervisor's aide, plans to run for supervisor himself when forced from Sacramento next year. Others are trolling for lucrative private jobs. What's gone is the impetus to plan for the state's future. Only Steinberg and a few others have been willing to tackle long-term problems of growth and sprawl, water supply and transportation.

Other unanticipated consequences:

* One likely candidate to succeed Wesson as speaker is a freshman in his 30s whose experience in public office consists of the last 4 1/2 months. No one with so little knowledge of the Legislature is likely to be able to keep order, much less exercise power.

* As one former legislative aide said after listening to a legislative hearing, "the folks on the dais didn't have the depth to ask the questions that needed to be asked." With so little institutional memory available, they don't know where to begin finding out if state agencies spend their budgets as intended or if laws are carried out reasonably.

* When an important bill to dampen gasoline price spikes came up in an Assembly committee recently -- with strong oil industry opposition -- the vote was 3 to 4, with seven members refusing to vote. Some members duck votes out of fear that in the next election they may suffer because they took a position on a controversial issue.

Fortunately, a few influential people are beginning to notice. Bill Pauli, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, says it may not be possible to govern diverse, complex California under such conditions, adding, "We need to focus on what's relevant, not just Willie Brown."

On the same 1990 ballot as the current term limits law was Proposition 131, a moderate term limits plan that would have allowed lawmakers up to 12 consecutive years in one office. The measure, which ineptly included public election funding, lost to its rival. Voters who today rarely know their own state representatives have in that dusty ballot measure a starting point for fixing the harm without ending term limits.

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