Sizing up Sacramento

by Mel Assagai and Larry Doyle

It is very difficult to assess the shape or attitudes of the 1997-98 California legislature, principally because it is impossible at this time to foresee the future of the Assembly. Barring upsets of massive proportions, the state Senate will remain solidly Democratic and Bill Lockyer of Hayward will remain President Pro Tempore. On the other hand, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's term also extends to 1998, setting the stage for more partisan standoffs across the policy table.

The Assembly is the wild card in the legislative deck. If Republicans retain the house, as they are convinced they will, we can expect to see the continuation of the existing leadership and committee structure as well as a continued enmity between the houses on policy issues such as tort reform, the environment and law enforcement. If Democrats regain the house, as they say they will, we will have new leadership, new committee chairs and assignments, and probably a healthy helping of new committee staff. We also will see a return to greater consistency between the houses on policy issues, with the two often standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a Republican governor.

Whatever else may happen, the legislature will be a vastly less experienced place next December as term limits send almost 400 years of legislative experience into retirement or other professions.

The Assembly

This year was one for which Republicans have long waited: They finally took control of the state Assembly, after gaining a majority of seats in the house in the 1994 election. Whether they can maintain that control, or slip back into the minority status in which they dwelled for the prior 25 years, it is impossible to know.

The partisan split in the house now is 41 Republicans, 36 Democrats and one Reform Party member, with two open seats. Inasmuch as the two open seats were occupied by Democrats and the Reform Party member was one, it's no surprise that both parties expect to emerge with a thin majority when the November polling is done.

Republicans believe they can parlay their substantial fundraising advantage over the past years into as many as 44 seats, while Assembly Democrats are equally certain that the higher voter turnout expected in a presidential election year and public dissatisfaction over Republican policies will return them to control. The odds at this point seem to favor a 40-40 house.

Whatever its partisan makeup, however, the watchwords for the Assembly will be inexperience and contention.

Beginning with the 1994 election, the past two years have brought 35 new members to the Assembly. The 1996 general election will add a minimum of 31 new faces. Five of these rookies will actually be veteran legislators making a comeback. Even so, when the gavel comes down in December to start the 1997-98 legislative session, at least 75 percent of the Assembly members sworn in will have two years or less legislative experience. And the remainder, less the four truly veteran members returning, will have four years' experience or less.

One product of the 1996 Republican takeover of the Assembly was the almost total restructuring of committees and committee staff. The Assembly Judiciary Committee, for example, changed from a 13-member committee with 10 lawyer members and an 8-5 Democratic majority in 1994 to a 15-member committee with five lawyer members and a 9-6 Republican majority. Only three of the current Assembly judiciary members have served on the panel more than a year.

If Republicans retain control of the Assembly, the Judiciary Committee stands to remain pretty much the same, since only two members are known to be leaving the house. If Democrats regain control, it's probable that the committee structure will be completely overhauled once again.

The Senate

Democrat Byron Sher's victory over Patrick Shannon in the special election last March for the 11th Senate District solidified the hold of Democrats -- and particularly Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer -- on the upper house. That win gave the Democrats a 22-16 advantage over Republicans.

The remaining two seats are filled by independents (Lucy Killea of San Diego and Quentin Kopp of San Francisco) who more often than not end up on the Democratic side of the tally sheet on major policy votes.

Continued Democratic control of the Senate is almost guaranteed after the November election. Of the 20 Senate seats being contested in November, only five appear seriously at issue: Two Democratic seats that could go Republican (Boat-wright and Mello), two Republican seats that could go Democratic (Russell and Beverly), and one Independent seat (Killea) which could go either way.

The best guess is that Repub-licans could pick up a net of one or two seats, leaving Democrats with a 21-18-1 margin, though it is entirely possible the Senate Democrats could add to their advantage.

The 10 "termed out" senators will take with them centuries of experience, but their expected replacements in virtually all cases will be experienced Assembly members. Thus the net loss in that department will be far less noticeable than in the Assembly.

Nor does the Senate Judiciary Committee stand to change much in terms of membership, as only Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland) is "termed out."

The most persistent report is that current committee chair Charles Calderon of Los Angeles will be elevated to Senate Democratic floor leader. If so, the committee will have its third new chair in five years.

Mel Assagai and Larry Doyle are the State Bar's lobbyists in Sacramento.