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How the Engine Derailed

October 08, 2003

In 1971, nothing was more contentious than welfare reform. Gov. Ronald Reagan railed at welfare cheats and wanted to trim the rolls. Bob Moretti, the late Democratic Assembly speaker, sought to boost payments to the needy. He later recalled saying, "Look, Governor, I don't like you particularly and I know you don't like me, but we don't have to be in love to work together." That touched off two weeks of intense negotiations that led to a landmark welfare reform supported by both parties. The breakthrough factor? Both men later said it was that they trusted each other.

Contrast that with the wee hours of Sept. 14, when the Assembly's 48 Democrats and 32 Republicans struggled to close the 2003 legislative session. Republicans, angry over $80 million they couldn't get from the other side for rural law enforcement, decided in closed caucus to effectively stall any legislation requiring a two-thirds vote. Then, in the heat of partisan warring, lawmakers realized they needed a two-thirds vote to renew Megan's Law, which lets the state keep a database to inform parents of the whereabouts of sex offenders.

Republicans proposed a list of amendments toughening the bill; Democrats raised an outcry over civil rights. Neither side budged. The measure failed. Charges flew over who was to blame for putting California kids at risk of sexual predators. Later, in special session, and after embarrassment and shame for both sides, the bill got extended to 2007.

The paralysis of California's state government helped drive the recall movement against Gov. Gray Davis. The bitterly partisan Legislature has escaped scrutiny. With the recall fresh in their minds, we urge voters to take on what really ails Sacramento, because what's wrong with state government goes much further than the governor's office.

When the State Got Off Track

Here are some of the factors that were at work that September night -- and during years of failing government in Sacramento:

* Term limits. A voter initiative passed in 1990 capped service in the Assembly at six years and in the Senate at eight, making it almost impossible for legislators to build the friendships and trust necessary for consensus government. Sacramento now sees a constant stream of inexperienced pols who spend more time than ever in pursuit of campaign contributions so they can finance their next step up the political ladder. Or they're job-hunting among former corporate contributors. With few exceptions, they avoid long-range solutions to California problems because they will be gone from office before results are seen. The real winners are the special interests that bankroll campaigns.

Before term limits, members were elected as partisans but over time saw the benefit in seeking common goals. "Now, they're in here and out of here," a former Assembly member said. "The partisan level is not diluted."

* Redistricting. A Satan's pact between Republicans and Democrats in 2001 led to a redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines that assure the parties mostly safe seats throughout the state. The real decisions occur in the party primaries, where ideology usually rules. The result is polarization at the extremes, a body dominated by conservative, no-tax Republicans on one side and liberal, union-supporting Democrats on the other. The moderate center has lost its balance of power.

* The two-thirds vote rule. During the fiscal crisis of the Depression, in 1933, the Legislature adopted the forerunner of the constitutional two-thirds vote requirement for passing the budget, or any spending bill. Proposition 13 in 1978 extended it to any state tax increase. California is one of just three states to have this crippling restriction. Though no one challenges the wisdom of the two-thirds vote for putting bills -- like the Megan's Law extension -- into effect immediately, the same requirement for fiscal measures allows for tyranny by a minority.

* Proposition 13. The Jarvis-Gann property tax limit law galvanized California politics along tax and no-tax lines with little regard for the state's needs. Several Republican lawmakers elected in 1978 were called "Proposition 13 babies." The ranks of dedicated anti-tax lawmakers increased every two years. The last time Democrats and Republicans really compromised on a tax plan was during Gov. Pete Wilson's administration in 1991. The Legislature approved a $7-billion tax hike to weather that recession. Since then, there have been billions in tax cuts without any hikes until the recent restoration of the car tax.

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