Remodeled houses in Sacramento


The new legislature is a profoundly different place. The most obvious changes are the result of term limits, the impact of which has finally hit after a six-year gestation period. Directly, term limits put an end to the immediate careers of over one-quarter of the state Senate and Assembly. Indirectly, it produced even more change by inducing many lawmakers to seek extended careers by running for other offices.

The result is a legislature surprisingly similar in composition to its pre-term limits predecessors, but infinitely lighter (to the tune of 400 person-years) in terms of experience and institutional memory.

Naturally, the effects of term limits are more pronounced in the Assembly, where members must run for re-election every two years and are "termed out" after only six years. Of the 80 Assembly members who took their seats when the 1997-98 legislative session convened Dec. 2, 75 had four years' state legislative experience or less. Nearly three-quarters have served less than two years.

Ironically, the only Assembly members with extensive experience in the house are also technically rookies -- five members who served in the house prior to the imposition of term limits, and have now returned.

The loss of institutional memory in the Assembly has been exacerbated by the shifts in partisan control. When Republicans assumed control of the house last session, after decades of Democratic majorities, dozens of experienced committee consultants were turned out. Now that the Democrats have re-assumed control, they can be expected to return the favor, but most of the veteran staff of two years ago will not be available to return. The result will be a marked lack of experience in those who analyze the bills.

Term limits will also impact the leadership of the Assembly. Both leaders -- new Speaker Cruz Bustamante and Republican Leader (and former Speaker) Curt Pringle -- are termed out in two years. This lame duck character of leadership will undoubtedly lead to earlier and more open jockeying for power among potential successors.

Compared with the Assembly, the Senate is a model of stability and institutional memory. Although term limits claimed 12 senators, their replacements generally came from the ranks of highly experienced, termed-out Assembly members. Only one of the newly-elected Senators is new to the legislature, attorney Adam Schiff of Burbank. President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer also remains.

Yet the effects of term limits are being felt in the Senate, too. Although experienced, the new members are not nearly as experienced as those who departed, including many former chairs of key Senate committees, sparking a major game of musical chairs. Lockyer, too, is termed out in 1998, and the Senate will thus have to deal with the issue of transitioning leadership.

Two other recent initiatives complicate things even more. Proposition 208, the campaign finance reform initiative passed last November, will further undermine the power of legislative leaders by eliminating their ability to amass huge campaign war chests for the benefit of the party faithful. And Proposition 198, the open primary initiative passed by the voters last June, could have the most profound impact of all by substantially changing the type of members elected to the legislature two years hence.

Or maybe not. All three initiatives are currently being challenged in court, and there is reason to believe they may be enjoined, eviscerated, or tossed out altogether. Even the term limits law, which many saw as impervious to challenge, may fail because of the harshness of its lifetime ban on returning to office.

If so, then the radical changes in the 1997-98 legislature may not be the sign of things to come, but merely the start of a new status quo.

Larry Doyle is the State Bar's chief legislative counsel.