Robbins at Center of Debate on Limiting Number of Bills
During the last legislative session, Sen. Alan Robbins did something no other state senator equaled:
The Van Nuys Democrat introduced 134 bills.
Most legislators in both houses did not even come close. The average per lawmaker was 53 bills. Only Democratic Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd of Hawthorne, with 143 bills, topped Robbins.
Robbins is proud of his output. In fact, he boasts that during his nearly 13 years as senator he has regularly introduced more bills than anyone else.
‘That’s My Job’
“I probably do the work of two or three other senators,” Robbins brags. “That’s my job. I enjoy doing it for my constituents.”
Not everyone is impressed. The activity levels of Robbins and other lawmakers who flood the system with legislation have become controversial in the Capitol. It costs an average of $4,000 to introduce and process a bill, critics say, so the record 6,394 measures introduced during the 1983-84 legislative session cost taxpayers more than $25 million.
Supporters of what has become an annual, and so far unsuccessful, effort to limit the number of bills a legislator can carry say many of the measures are trivial and prevent lawmakers from devoting time to really important issues. Many measures are introduced for special interest groups, frequent contributors to legislators’ campaigns.
One of those who wants to limit legislators’ bills is Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), whose district reaches into Woodland Hills and is therefore a neighbor, of sorts, to the prolific Robbins.
‘Easy to Get Bogged Down’
“I think the public is very interested in seeing the Legislature focus on the most important issues,” said Hart, whose bill-curbing measure has stalled in a Senate committee. “I think it’s very easy to get bogged down in minutia.”
But Robbins brands Hart’s idea as “an absolute insult to the people of California.” He promises that, if Hart’s resolution, or a similar one introduced by Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run) passes, he will find a way to introduce as many bills as he pleases.
“I know I would be embarrassed if I had introduced as little bills as some,” Robbins said.
Interviews with other legislators who represent the Valley, however, indicated they are far from embarrassed. In fact, most say they are proud of limiting their introduction of bills. “Quality, not quantity” is a term some of them used.
Hart and Ed Davis
Robbins had 71 bills last session that did not make it through the Legislature--a greater number than any other Valley legislator introduced, according to the official Senate and Assembly histories.
By contrast, the Valley’s other two senators, Hart and Ed Davis (R-Valencia) introduced 58 and 54 bills, respectively.
In the Assembly, the bill production also was more moderate: Marian W. LaFollette (R-Northridge) introduced 56; Tom Bane (D-Tarzana), 46; Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), 45; Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), 39; Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), 38, and Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles), 35.
All the Valley legislators except Bane, who generally sides with Robbins on this issue, see the need for the Legislature to limit bills. They contend that no politician can do justice to a large pile of bills and that the large number of trivial, so-called junk bills diverts attention from the important issues.
Last week, for example, Sen. Davis complained that the Judiciary Committee devoted as much time to an “asinine bill"--one which would have placed the local political contests above the presidential race on primary ballots--as it did on his death penalty bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee killed the ballot bill after its sponsor, Assemblyman Louis J. Papan (D-Millbrae), explained that a constituent requested it because he did not vote for Papan during the last election, having gotten tired of reading through the list of presidential candidates.
Most Valley legislators say the primary reason why some of their peers carry heavy bill loads is because they cannot say “no” to constituents or special interests.
Sen. Davis says it’s far easier to say “yes.” During his first year as senator, Davis recalled, “I was like the girl who was frequently pregnant. I didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ ” Now he limits his bills to about 20 a year.
Calls It Admirable
Robbins does not deny that he does not say “no” much, but he sees that as admirable.
“Most members of the Legislature say ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ when they are asked to carry a bill,” Robbins said. “I just don’t believe in saying ‘no’ to the people of the San Fernando Valley.”
Assemblyman Davis sees the situation differently. “The legislative process is not unlike a smorgasbord,” he said. “If you eat everything in sight, you die. The challenge is to be selective.”
Every legislator gets dozens of unusual bill requests each year. This session, Katz was asked to introduce a bill mandating the number of employees required in mall jewelry stores. Somebody wanted LaFollette to sponsor a bill requiring that the wrong-way spikes installed in parking lots be placed on freeway exits to keep drunk drivers off the wrong ramps.
Instead of saying “no” to bill suggestions, Bane said, he will sometimes submit constituents’ ideas to an appropriate committee, knowing that the committee will turn it down. That way he will not have to break the bad news to a potential voter. He did exactly that when a letter writer wanted to limit truck and school bus access to the freeways.
“I sent the letter to the committee and they responded for me,” Bane said.
Others say that practice puts undue burdens on committees, which have enough legitimate work to do.
A longtime Capitol practice, which some legislators have attempted to curb in recent years, is keeping a bill--one that has already been introduced but not acted upon--handy just in case it is needed after the deadline for introducing legislation has passed. The bill is generally brief and deemed of little importance.
The legislator then has a foot in the door. He can gut this bill after the deadline and rewrite it to cover any unforeseen problems of the state, a constituent or a lobbyist.
Some legislators and aides suggest that Robbins, who is chairman of the Insurance Committee, carries more of these so-called “spot” bills than most.
Use of a spot bill, said Sen. Davis, “is a technique with Alan. If the insurance industry needs a spot bill, he can clap his hands against his thighs and say, ‘Here, Spot.’
“Alan is the master of the legislative process, and a lot of it is very good for our Valley. He does incredible things. He uses chicanery, magic and salesmanship and gets things done.”
Handy in Power Plays
Robbins acknowledges that he uses spot bills. However, he says, he only introduces about five a year, and then he uses them to help constituents and fellow legislators. He does concede that spot bills can be handy in power plays: “I’d rather be in a position of having a bill and having some other legislator need it, which allows me to get some power in the Valley.”
Robbins said he carries more Valley-oriented bills than possibly any other in the delegation, and he does not care if some call him parochial. Yet a rough count of his bills shows that during the last session, he also carried about 40 insurance bills.
The opinions are varied on just how the statistics on bills should be interpreted, or whether they can be used to measure the success of a politician. The consensus seems to be that it is the issues a legislator tackles, and not the sheer volume of bills, that separates the superior legislator from the mediocre one.
Assemblyman Davis--who had a greater percentage of his bills passed than anyone else in the Valley delegation--said another mark of a good lawmaker is how many bills are approved by the Legislature rather than how many are signed by the governor. That is, the judgment of his legislative peers is often valued more highly by the lawmaker than that of a governor, whose signing or not signing, it is felt, could be for political reasons.
Conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian signed 26 of the 30 bills that liberal Democrat Gray Davis ushered successfully through the Legislature during the last session.
Hart, another liberal, fared somewhat worse with the governor. The Legislature approved 36 of Hart’s bills, but the governor vetoed 11, including major legislation on education, facilities for latchkey children and offshore oil wells.
Wright’s Success Rate
After Assemblyman Davis, Wright had the highest success rate (71%) in getting her bills passed and signed. She attributes her success to limiting her bills to a workable level and only sponsoring bills that truly interest her.
Interestingly, Wright and Assemblyman Davis introduced the fewest number of bills among the Valley delegation and enjoyed the biggest percentage of success. Robbins saw 47% of his bills passed by the Legislature and 45% signed by the governor.
The Valley legislator who had the most trouble with her bills was LaFollette. Out of 56 bills she introduced, only 16 were passed by the Legislature and 15 were signed.
LaFollette discounted the low percentage by saying she had picked some tough fights (for instance, a toxic waste bill was vetoed by the governor) and some unpopular stances. She has introduced legislation stemming from attempts to pull the Valley out of the Los Angeles Unified School District. She said she also withdraws bills if the need no longer exists.
Logistically, Robbins’ bill load is mind-boggling. As a rule of thumb, a legislator is called upon to make six appearances for each of his or her bills that winds through the legislative process. For the average bill, a legislator will appear before two policy committees, two fiscal committees and on the floors of the Assembly and Senate. If Robbins’ 134 bills had traveled through the entire process, he would have made 804 appearances.
Robbins said he will sometimes send staff members from his insurance committee to represent some of the technical bills. Otherwise, Robbins said, he is quick on his feet and has timed the seconds it takes to get from his office to a hearing room.
Some committee chairmen, including Katz, however, will not permit a lobbyist or an aide to represent a legislator. Katz will let an aide present a bill if the legislator has been called home for an emergency.
“My feeling is, the committee is there to hear the bill; if it’s important enough for the committee to hear, it should be important enough for the legislator,” Katz said.