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The State | George Skelton CAPITOL JOURNAL

The 'Budget Nun' Earns Her Pay and Bipartisan Respect

May 26, 2003|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — SACRAMENTO

Think there are no taxpayer bargains in Sacramento? Here's one and it's a steal: the $5.5 million we shell out to operate the office of Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill.

The Budget Nun, she's called, because her fiscal reports are incorruptible. They're the bible. The one source of truth.

At minimum, legislators and taxpayers can be confident Hill's numbers are not cooked in a roily pot of political partisanship.

She's the most influential non-elected official in the Capitol. Yet, she's about the only major player in the legislative process who escapes political fire.

With her gentle manner and tough mind, Hill is a reliable island of calm in a sea of chaos.

Californians can thank their lucky stars for her -- and the 1941 Legislature for creating this nonpartisan office during a brawl with Gov. Culbert Olson. Lawmakers didn't trust the governor's numbers and wanted their own independent fiscal advisor. Other states and Congress since have copied California.

Hill, with a staff of 52, was the first to sound the alarm last November about California's colossal state budget shortfall. She measured the gap then at $21.1 billion over two fiscal years and, last week, bumped the figure to $29.5 billion. Gov. Gray Davis has pegged the number higher, most recently at $38.2 billion.

Hill disputes the governor's calculations, saying Davis projects spending that he desires, but hasn't been authorized by the Legislature.

More important than the latest red-ink figure, however, was Hill's warning about the state's "formidable structural imbalance." Unless Sacramento reforms fiscally, she cautioned, it will continue to spend more money than it takes in and run up huge annual deficits.

"In budget-speak," she told reporters, "it means we cannot grow our way out of this on the natural."

As usual, the legislative analyst's conference room was packed -- standing room only -- with reporters and politicians' aides. Hill invariably draws crowds and attention that would be the envy of most any politician, simply because she offers credibility rather than spin.

That doesn't mean her advice always is heeded. For months, Hill has been urging the lawmakers to move swiftly, and they've been poking along.

"It is important that the Legislature take early and decisive action to get the state's fiscal house in order," she wrote in a January analysis of the governor's budget proposal.

Not important enough, lawmakers obviously believe, to decisively take action that's politically risky -- like, for Republicans, raising taxes.

Hill, 53, grew up in Modesto, where she was the first female student body president at her high school. (Current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was one class ahead.) Later at Stanford, Hill majored in human biology and played guard on the women's basketball team.

Summers she worked in a Central Valley cannery "putting tomatoes into a can." Life changed when Hill got an internship at Caltrans and was asked to study bike lanes. She got hooked on policy analysis and became a wonk, a number cruncher.

Next came a master's in public policy from UC Berkeley and a Fulbright scholarship to study transportation in Sweden. In 1976, Hill was hired by the legislative analyst's office, then headed by a legend, A. Alan Post, who held the job for 27 years.

In 1986, she became only the fourth person to be chosen for the top position, beating out 150 candidates. Hill had to overcome concerns by some male legislators that because she was eight months pregnant and planning soon to begin maternity leave, she wasn't up to the job.

Attitudes have changed, but not always for the better.

"Clearly we live in a more partisan world today than it was in Alan's tenure," Hill says. "There was a bit more of a middle."

The current budget gridlock illustrates the polarization. "At this point, there's a deep philosophical divide," she notes.

Hill isn't recommending a specific budget fix, but has offered options and repeatedly advised negotiators to "put everything on the table" -- including program cuts and tax hikes. So far, Republicans have balked at even considering taxes.

Hill seems to think the GOP isn't being realistic. But she carefully keeps any political leanings private and is registered to vote as "declined to state."

"From time to time her reports tend to be a little more liberal than we'd like," says Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. "But that's reflected in recommendations, rather than analysis. On pure analysis, there's nobody any better.

"We use her numbers -- not the governor's."

Says Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who helped select Hill 17 years ago: "She provides the clearest, most objective, most reliable information in this building -- not slanted to suit anyone."

The Legislature pays her the same salary as the governor's finance director: $131,412. It's the best bargain in the Capitol.

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