The New Poor: a Legislator Whose Staff Is Down to 18


California's congressionalized legislature is struggling to repel the attack on its operations and prerogatives imposed by a popular initiative passed last fall.

Led by the Assembly speaker, Willie Brown, and the Senate president, David Roberti, the legislature has appealed to the California Supreme Court to strike down the initiative, Proposition 140, which limits legislators to two or three terms, revokes their pensions and slashes their staffs by some 40 percent.

The legislature claims the restrictions on terms and the cutbacks in staff and operating budgets are so severe they imperil its capacity to carry on as a co-equal branch of government.

Proposition 140 does indeed seem the most severe -- some say vindictive -- of all popular initiatives proposed to clip legislators' wings. It was pushed by conservatives upset with the seeming invincibility of the California legislators (60 percent of whom are Democrats). With big personal staffs and massive campaign war chests, they were gaining power and perquisites reminiscent of the habitually re-elected U.S. Congress.

Some of the conservatives' animosity has centered on Mr. Brown, a flamboyant power wielder and one of the nation's most prominent black elected officials. He personally raised nearly $1 million in a vain effort to defeat the initiative.

It was a predecessor of Mr. Brown, the late and great Assembly speaker Jess Unruh, who led California to create America's first highly professionalized, heavily staffed, full-time state legislature back in the '60s. "Staff is knowledge and knowledge is power," said Unruh.

Most large states have since moved in the same direction. Staffs have improved the quality of legislatures. The traditional "citizen legislator," who spends only a few months of each year legislating, has a tough time mastering proposed laws ranging from the intricacies of Medicaid to subsidies for high-technology research.

California's full-time legislators took things to an extreme, however. By the early '80s, they had 2,200 staff members, a 370 percent rise since Unruh started the expansion. By last year, they had another 300. Many were in committee staffs, where they built lifetime careers in such specialties as toxic wastes or local-government finance, giving expert scrutiny to bills.

But many others were hired for constituent services and to serve as non-stop re-election aides at public expense. There was lots of featherbedding -- fat staffing for dozens of select committees on topics ranging from "Courthouse Financing and Construction" to "Plant and Animal Husbandry" to "Fire, Police and Emergency Services" to "the 1992 Quincentennial of Voyages of Christopher Columbus." (Columbus, let it be noted, never got near the West Coast.)

Last month, I heard a prominent Assembly committee chairman make the astonishing assertion that he'd lost 14 of his 32 committee and personal staff members. A big drop, to be sure. But you have to wonder: Why so many in the first place?

Tom Lempert, a 29-year-old Silicon Valley assemblyman who beat an incumbent and pushed through, in his first term, such reforms as a ban on legislators' honorariums and a "revolving door" law (no lobbying job within a year of leaving office), said the staffs are needed to save legislators from special-interest manipulation. His staff was cut from ten to seven, and he says he is overwhelmed with constituent-service requests. He is recruiting interns to fill the gaps.

OK. But look at two offices the legislative leaders say they may have to eliminate: the Legislative Analyst and the Auditor General. Both are highly respected nationwide. They embody the professionalism Jess Unruh championed. If California legislators eliminate these effective offices while protecting their own personal staffs, you can discount 90 percent of the legislators' moaning and groaning about the loss of legislative capacity.

There's an excellent chance, one hears, that the California Supreme Court may rule in favor of the legislature's suit to overturn Proposition 140. The term limits in 140 do impair people's rights to select their own legislators. The initiative may have been designed to punish Mr. Brown and Mr. Roberti personally -- ballot materials claimed 140 would end each man's reign. There's a technical point that the initiative substantially revises the state constitution -- more than is permissible by initiative.

What California may get is a total reversal or a total upholding of Proposition 140. Either would be too bad. It's tough to conclude that one side or the other in this California imbroglio has a monopoly on "truth and justice."

Regardless, legislators will know they're on notice about lifetime careers in Sacramento. Many citizens want them to serve more briefly. On the pension issue, it certainly seems unfair to deny legislators what they've earned.

But it would seem offensive if the court should restore the 40 percent of staff jobs cut by Proposition 140. Speaker Brown claims the cuts are doing the legislature incalculable harm. He forgets that private businesses learn to take occasional major personnel losses, then readjust and often emerge stronger.

Government ought to learn the same kind of discipline.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban issues.

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