Sleaze factor drags down California Legislature

The California state Legislature, for years considered the nation's sterling model of effective government, enters the new year with the daunting task of polishing its now-tarnished reputation. At the state capitol here, most lawmakers seem acutely aware that California voters now regard them with the same low esteem usually reserved for used-car salesmen. Indeed, in the wake of one of the most ignominious years in California legislative history, several legislators already are jockeying to introduce reform bills to regain the public trust.

Even so, longtime political observers doubt that the Legislature is capable of seriously reforming itself. ``It's too much to expect legislators to change the rules that they got elected by,'' says Bud Lembke, editor of a bimonthly newsletter on state politics. ``I think any substantive changes will probably have to be through a ballot initiative.''

In the last year, the state Legislature has been rocked by:

A ``sting'' operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The sting is purported to have turned up state legislators and legislative aides who solicited campaign contributions from an out-of-state company wanting to expand into California. In return, the lawmakers allegedly agreed to support bills that exclusively benefited the FBI's phony ``company.''

The FBI searched the offices of four state lawmakers in August, and agents have also questioned a former legislator. No assemblymen or senators have yet been arrested, although federal prosecutors say indictments are imminent. As a result of the investigation, legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle - as well as the public-interest group Common Cause - may introduce a variety of ethics-reform packages.

A speakership fight in the state Assembly. The year was marked more by politicking than by policymaking, as five conservative Democrats broke ranks with liberal Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. over reforming house rules. What started as an attempt to move the Democratic policy agenda ``into the mainstream'' gradually evolved into a series of efforts to oust the Speaker, according to Assemblyman Gary Condit (D), one of the renegade ``Gang of Five.''

Although the coup attempts failed, with Speaker Brown reelected on Dec. 5 to a record fifth term, Assemblyman Condit says the uprising served a purpose by focusing on the tight control the Speaker exercises over lawmakers and legislation. ``We think we're closer now to getting some changes than ever before,'' he says. ``Practically everyone in the house, including the Speaker, is talking about rules reform.''

Reform of the state's campaign-finance laws. The state Legislature, repeatedly unable to enact any meaningful changes, saw voters turn in June to the ballot-initiative process.

The outcome has been complicated by the fact that voters, in their enthusiasm for some kind of reform, approved two campaign-finance initiatives. While contradictions between the two remain to be sorted out in court, many legislators say the message from voters came through loud and clear.

Concern about the influence of special-interest groups on state lawmakers sparked the revolt, says Assembly minority leader Ross Johnson (R), who sponsored the top-vote-getting reform measure.

``It's an insult to everyone's intelligence,'' he says, ``to think it costs a couple of million dollars to win an Assembly seat that only pays a salary of $45,000 a year.''

Indeed, campaign costs continue to climb to new heights in California, with spending for an open Assembly seat averaging $379,000 in 1986. That figure represents an 88 percent increase over the average amount spent in 1984, and a 246 percent increase from 1982, says Tracy Westen of the independent, nonprofit California Commission on Campaign Financing. California has ``far and away'' the most expensive state legislative races, he says.

While endorsing many provisions of the Johnson-backed reform law, Mr. Westen says it is inadequate because it only caps individual contributions - not overall spending on a campaign.

``Candidates will have to spend more time, not less, raising money, because they will have to raise it in smaller chunks,'' he says. A spending ceiling has been declared unconstitutional unless candidates have access to public financing - a concept eschewed by Johnson and other fiscal conservatives.

Together, these problems have virtually incapacitated this once-august institution. What went wrong?

Some long-time political observers trace the problems back to the mid-'60s, when the Legislature evolved from a part-time body to a full-time ,``professional'' one, replete with an armada of paid staff members to help lawmakers draft new bills. At first it worked, and the new Legislature was heralded for its ground-breaking laws on consumer protection, environmental protection, and labor issues, says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters. But, over time, the picture clouded.

``It used to be that these people practiced politics so they could get to Sacramento and make policy,'' Mr. Walters says. ``But the atmosphere began to change at the capitol in the mid-'70s, and policy became the handmaiden of politics. Now, they only do policy if it will further their political careers.''

Racked by divisiveness, consumed with fear of alienating the special interests that help to get members elected, the Legislature increasingly is abrogating its lawmaking responsibilities to voters, according to political observers as well as some lawmakers. California voters have tackled the complex issues of property-tax reform, liability-insurance reform, school funding, campaign-finance reform, and auto-insurance reform - all via the ballot initiative after the Legislature failed to act.

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