Legislature Faces Thorny Issues : Ballot Measures Assume State's Political Initiative

Times Staff Writers

The 1988 Legislature convenes Jan. 4 under the long shadow of proposed ballot initiatives that aim to resolve many of the same controversial issues facing California lawmakers.

Name almost any issue, and there is at least one initiative lined up to deal with it: automobile insurance reform, AIDS, relaxing government spending limits, election campaign financing, shelter for the homeless.

Even some legislators, frustrated by their inability to win approval of their pet bills, are taking to the increasingly well-traveled initiative route.

Poised like a hammer over the heads of legislators are at least 29 proposed initiatives in active circulation, as well as others in the drafting and pre-filing stages. Some have already qualified for the June ballot. In 1982, at least 36 were in circulation at one time.

Some proponents of ballot measures merely want to prod the Legislature into acting while others earnestly seek to enact a law by end-running the lawmakers.

A classic example of an initiative that bulldozed the Legislature into taking action occurred in 1978 when property tax-cutting Proposition 13 forced the lawmakers to enact their own rival measure, Proposition 8. The legislative alternative was crushed at the polls.

Since 1912, when the direct initiative became part of the political scene in California, 645 proposals have been approved for circulation. Of these, 197 qualified for the ballot and 57 were enacted into law, records show.

"There is a tendency of the Legislature to avoid dealing with tough issues," one legislative leader observed. "The threat of an initiative has acted as a spur to the Legislature to deal with thorny issues."

As reelection-conscious legislators start the second half of their two-year session, major issues affecting education, traffic gridlock, AIDS, billions of dollars worth of proposed bond issues, trauma care centers and the high cost of car insurance will be at the top of the public policy agenda.

But likely to dominate the early political agenda will be the debate over confirming Rep. Daniel E. Lungren as Gov. George Deukmejian's nominee to succeed the late Jesse M. Unruh as treasurer, a relatively obscure post that Unruh radically transformed into a formidable political force in the nation's bond markets.

Lungren, a five-term Republican congressman from Deukmejian's hometown of Long Beach, will be the first appointee to a statewide office to undergo confirmation by the Legislature, now controlled by Democrats.

Handicappers at the Capitol give Lungren a preliminary edge, although a stiff Democratic challenge is certain. "They'll put him through the hoops, but I think he will get confirmed by both houses," forecast Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, himself an unsuccessful contender for treasurer.

Bid to Extract Favors

Likewise, Assembly GOP leader Patrick Nolan of Glendale said he believes that Lungren will be approved, although he said he believes that Democrats may try to extract favors from Deukmejian for their favorable votes.

"We'll have a detailed hearing," Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said. "It is not going to be a once-over-lightly confirmation hearing."

In the Assembly, Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said recently that he has heard some good things about Lungren but that the nominee probably faces criticism for his opposition to a federal bill to provide reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Indeed, opposition surfaced late in December when Asian-American individuals and organizations joined to assail his civil rights record.

There is a difference of opinion over what is required to confirm Lungren. Democrats in the Legislature believe that to win approval under a 1976 amendment to the state Constitution, Lungren must be confirmed by both the Assembly and Senate, a position advanced by Democratic Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. Deukmejian maintains that confirmation requires the affirmative vote of only one house.

Major Problems

For a time, the Lungren debate is likely to distract lawmakers from other major problems, some of which they encountered firsthand in their home districts after adjournment of the last session in September.

Take, for example, worsening roadway congestion and increasingly costly automobile insurance, especially in Southern California. Roberti said he and other lawmakers have been swamped with constituent mail demanding lower car insurance rates. During the recess, he and other urban legislators also have discovered traffic gridlock for themselves.

"You don't recognize it until you come home for a long period of time that gridlock in Southern California is horrendous," he said. "To the average citizen, that is obvious. Sometimes you have to come back home and recognize that what is on the people's minds is not necessarily on our minds in Sacramento."

The appeals for car insurance rate reductions have reached an almost crescendo level, especially in the wake of the Legislature's failure thus far to approve bills that would lower rates or give the state insurance commissioner the authority to do so.

'Crisis' Situation

Roberti and others call the situation a "crisis" that must be dealt with by the 1988 Legislature. But a solution in the Capitol has been elusive, and at least seven car insurance ballot initiatives have been announced or are in circulation, including one sponsored by the insurance industry itself.

Speaker Brown and Senate GOP leader Maddy indicated that reaching agreement on comprehensive car insurance reform seems unlikely because two competing powerful lobbies--the insurance industry and the trial lawyers--probably would not reach an accord swiftly.

"Automobile insurance reform may be confined to the process of the initiative in 1988," Brown said. "If, however, those initiatives don't qualify for the ballot, then we will be immersed in automobile insurance."

High on virtually everyone's agenda is improvement of the state's transportation systems-- from filling potholes and constructing new high-speed roadways to development of more mass transit facilities and overhauling the Los Angeles Rapid Transit District board.

Bond Issues

Deukmejian, who adamantly opposes raising motor vehicle taxes to finance transportation needs, is sponsoring a pair of bond issues that would total $2.3 billion for highway construction, safety projects, reduction of traffic congestion and other programs.

At the same time, anti-tax activist Paul Gann is expected to qualify an initiative that would require funds raised by the gasoline tax to be exempt from the voter-approved 1979 law that limits government spending and would earmark revenue from the state sales tax on gasoline for transportation purposes.

If the Deukmejian program won both legislative and voter approval and the Gann initiative was enacted, transportation in California would receive an enormous infusion of extra dollars. Opponents of the Gann plan assert that dedicating the sales tax revenue on gasoline strictly for transportation would divert about $700 million away from other programs, such as schools.

Certain to pressure the Legislature into taking steps to deal with the AIDS epidemic will be an initiative by supporters of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche that has qualified for the June election. Similar to a measure that the voters rejected in 1986, the latest proposal would, among other things, provide for the quarantine of people who tested positive for exposure to the AIDS virus.

AIDS Legislation Difficult

However, adopting a legislative AIDS program that can be promoted as a rational alternative to the LaRouche proposal may be difficult, especially in an election year when many legislators are skittish about voting on emotionally charged issues.

In enacting the first AIDS legislation two years ago, the Legislature provided strict confidentiality protections for AIDS sufferers, even to the extent of making it against the law for a physician, without a patient's consent, to alert fellow health care workers or anyone else that the patient has AIDS.

Now, Republicans generally and some Democrats assert that most Californians believe that the public health consequences of AIDS outweigh the confidentiality of AIDS patients and their rights to strict privacy.

In the early days of passing AIDS laws, Sen. Maddy said, "we did spend most of our time worrying about homophobia and confidentiality and protection of individuals rather than about the health care implications of AIDS."

Confidentiality Law

One controversial bill that has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly would rewrite the confidentiality law and allow testing for exposure to the AIDS virus without a patient's written consent. A physician could also disclose results of the test to county health officers "for the purpose of controlling" the always-fatal ailment.

Senate leader Roberti said he believes that legislation can be enacted that both protects public health and civil rights. "The thought that the two are mutually exclusive is abhorrent to me. We have to do both," he said.

High on the 1988 agenda will be education and how much money to spend on it. Speaker Brown, for example, foresees education as "clearly the No. 1 issue." Likewise, it appears to be a high priority with Deukmejian, whose budget for public schools has drawn heavy criticism from state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig and legislative Democrats.

Deukmejian has said he wants assurance that before additional funds are provided for education that the sums now received by schools are spent wisely and not wasted. He appointed a citizens' commission to examine the issue and indicated that he will propose legislation to implement its recommendations for improvement, if any.

Battle Shaping Up

Meantime, Republicans foresee a battle shaping up over proposed bond issues and the possibility that none will find a spot on the ballot. These range from major proposals to help build new classrooms and provide shelter for the homeless to financing new highways, state prisons and toxics cleanup.

Pending bond issues now total about $13 billion, a sum certain to be whittled down. But a major barrier that first must be resolved is Democratic insistence in the Assembly that bond issues for construction contain a provision that women and minority contractors receive a certain amount of the projects financed by bond funds.

Strongly supported by Speaker Brown and Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), and vigorously opposed by Republicans in both houses, is the inclusion in bond issues of a formula assuring, for example, that 10% of the contract awards go to minority members and another 10% to women, or that 15% go to one group and 5% to the other.

Debate Over Contracts

Republicans argue that this creates a quota system which, in effect, discriminates against women and minorities. Supporters scoff at the contention and contend that it merely assures such contractors of their rightful share of the economic action.

Nolan and Maddy voiced concern that no resolution can be reached and that no bond issues approved by the Legislature and governor will get on the ballot. "It is a real possibility," Nolan added. "It's been talked about by both sides."

Meantime, Republicans claim that they have heard reports that Democrats may withhold their votes for Lungren unless the women-minority contractor provisions were included in construction bond issues. Democrats insisted that they know nothing of such a maneuver.

Even if the Legislature and Deukmejian fail to put any bond measures on the ballot, voters in June will be asked to approve a $776-million bond issue sponsored by conservationists. The proposal calls for the acquisition, development, protection and restoration of park, wildlife, coastal and other lands.

Campaign Reform

Another long-unresolved issue addressed by an initiative that has already qualified for the June ballot is the politically delicate matter of overhauling the way legislative election campaigns are financed in California.

The initiative, sponsored by Common Cause, would limit contributions and expenditures in legislative races, prohibit transfers of funds between candidates and eliminate off-year contributions. It would also provide for partial public financing of campaigns through an income tax checkoff system.

In addition, two other proposed initiatives to reform campaign financing, both without controversial use of public money, are in circulation. In 1984, a ballot proposition that would have limited campaign contributions and provided for only limited public financing of campaigns was defeated at the polls.

The wide-ranging Common Cause proposal is expected to spur the Legislature into at least attempting to produce an alternative. However, given the Legislature's failure to reform campaign financing despite years of announced intentions to do so, no leaders are anxious to forecast success this time around.

Trauma Care Assistance

In the Assembly, Democrats are expected to renew their efforts to obtain state financial help for the ailing trauma care network of hospitals in Los Angeles County, whose emergency facilities treat low-income people.

The network, once at 23 hospitals, has shrunk to 16. At least two others have announced plans to drop out. The hospitals contend that they cannot keep their emergency room doors open because local government payments fall far short of meeting their costs.

Over heavy opposition, Deukmejian has vetoed legislation to provide state aid to the centers, contending that Los Angeles County could have spent some of the money it received in an omnibus local appropriations bill for trauma centers.

In the interim, however, the Assembly Democrats may have picked up an important ally in Maddy, the Senate GOP leader. Maddy said he is convinced after meeting with center physicians that lives are being saved that otherwise probably would have been lost.

He said that together with what county hospitals say is a lack of public financial support, the threat of more hospitals leaving the network "is going to force the Administration to develop some sort of health services agenda over what they have already done."

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