VISIONS OF CALIFORNIA : GOP Legislators: What if Their Dreams Came True?

Times Staff Writer

Imagine California government under the control of Orange County's Republican legislators--the Democrats' worst nightmare and a fantasy come true for the county's eight Republican Assembly members and four state senators.

Long the conservative heart of a battered minority party, Orange County's GOP lawmakers traditionally have been unable to impose their view of the perfect world on the Legislature in any significant way.

But what if that changed and the views of the county's Republican legislators prevailed in both the Legislature and the governor's office? How would those views, translated into policy, change the lives of Californians?

In an attempt to answer that question, The Times reviewed legislation introduced by the county's Republican legislators in past years and questioned them at length about what they would do if they had power to change the state.

Not everyone agreed on every issue. But clear majorities emerged on many subjects. Here is a sample of how California might change if the county's Republican lawmakers were calling the shots:

Criminals would be among the first to feel the impact. They would find it tougher to stay out of prison as rules of evidence for criminal trials were loosened and the Legislature revoked many of the procedural advantages defense attorneys have won over the years.

Once in prison, the crooks would see that it was tougher to get out early. One consolation: There would be plenty of new prisons for them to call home.

Businesses and workers would feel the impact of the new era through a variety of state regulations that would be lifted or scaled back. The state's worker safety agency finally would be abolished, for example.

And employees in high-risk jobs would be required to submit to drug tests if their supervisors suspected usage.

Local governments would be forced to limit the fees they collect from developers to pay for the construction of schools, sewers, libraries and parks, and public agencies would be held more accountable for the way they spent the money they did collect.

Also, local governments would be put on notice that unreasonable limits on growth could have serious consequences, such as a reduction in state housing subsidy funds.

The Coastal Commission would be phased out, and its duties would be turned over to cities and counties. Rent control would be outlawed.

Freeway construction would reach an all-time high. More roads could be built, as all taxes on gasoline and motor vehicles would be shifted to a special fund that could be spent only on transportation.

Public toll roads, first tried in Orange County, would be built elsewhere in the state.

Welfare recipients' benefits would be scaled back to no more than the national average, and more of them would be required to participate in the state's workfare program. Sanctions for those who dropped out would be tougher.

Goals that today require state agencies to try to hire a certain number of women and minorities would be rescinded. Funds for family planning agencies that refer pregnant women to abortion clinics would be curtailed.

In the schools, students' clothing and lockers would be subject to searches if administrators thought they were using drugs. More children would attend private schools under an experimental program allowing their parents to choose a state-paid alternative to the public school system.

The Orange County legislators' view of the perfect world may be a dream in more ways than one.

The Republicans would need five seats in the Assembly and six in the state Senate to control the Legislature. And even if the GOP were in power, the Orange County delegation would have to compete within their party for control of the state's political agenda.

Disagree Among Themselves

Orange County's Republican lawmakers, in fact, disagree even among themselves on many of the specific steps needed to improve the lives of their constituents. But they are unanimous on certain broad themes.

They all say they want more individual freedom, less government regulation of business matters and more incentives for the private and public sector to excel. They believe the best welfare program is a strong, free-market economy.

It is criminal-justice issues that perhaps most often bring Orange County's Republicans into conflict with the Democratic majority in the Legislature. During 1987, for instance, only 10 of 66 crime-related bills introduced by members of the Orange County delegation became law.

Assemblyman Ross Johnson of La Habra alone introduced 21 such measures. One--strengthening restitution requirements--is now law. The other 20, many dealing with the death penalty, never made it past the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The same committee in one meeting last week shelved nine bills introduced by Orange County lawmakers.

In recent interviews, several members of the delegation cited public safety as their biggest concern. They said they favor building more prisons and bringing suspected criminals to trial and punishment much more quickly than under the system in place today.

Protect People, Property

"The first priority of government is to protect its people, their life and their property," said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson of Newport Beach. "If we can't do that, we shouldn't even think about anything else."

Added Johnson: "If you stripped away everything government does layer by layer until you left only one function, that function would be the police function--to provide for the people's safety."

Members of the county's delegation and other Republican legislators have long said they believe the Public Safety Committee's Democratic majority is little more than a rubber stamp for the views of the American Civil Liberties Union, which testifies against nearly every bill imposing longer prison terms, creating a new crime or impinging on the rights of defendants in court.

A Republican majority in the Legislature would almost certainly begin to reverse that trend while also overturning many of the controversial state Supreme Court decisions made before voters in 1986 ousted Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices.

Some Democrats say a major turnaround in social programs also would be inevitable if the Orange County legislative delegation held sway in Sacramento.

Said John Hanna, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Central Committee: "They would not only start to turn the clock back on the progress that's been made but would literally bring the state to a grinding halt. They would cut welfare assistance for the blind and disabled down to the bone. You'd see not only cases of people who are hungry, you'd see a return to the soup lines of the '30s."

Assemblyman Mike Roos of Los Angeles, Speaker Pro Tem of the Assembly, added that the rise to power of Orange County's Republicans would be the end of "fairness" in California government.

Short-Term Prosperity

"There might be a short-term sense of prosperity for those working and making it, but there would be a further falling behind of those on the margin, those who need a strong, vibrant public education, who need transitional programs fostered by the government and who need support when they are disabled or aged," Roos said. "You'd see these people falling further and further behind."

Orange County's Republican legislators are not reticent about the Democrats' record in Sacramento. The Democrats have had ample time to implement their agenda, they say, and yet California still suffers from substandard schools, an overloaded highway system and record numbers of homeless wandering the streets.

"Our Democratic counterparts are basically saying more of the same," Johnson said. "They have created a giant bureaucratic structure of overlapping programs and are basically saying that structure is sound and all it requires to make it work is more money.

"I believe we're taking enough of the people's money to provide them the quality service they want. If we would restructure and streamline these programs, provide more local control of funds with a minimum of strings, we can have a system of government that is responsive."

Assemblyman Dennis Brown, who represents Seal Beach, Sunset Beach, Rossmoor and Westminster, said those at both the top and the bottom of the economic heap would be best served if government did less, not more.

Brown, recently installed as chairman of the Assembly Republican Caucus, advocates abandoning the progressive tax rate system for a "flat tax" under which everyone pays the same percentage of his or her income in taxes. He also supports a voucher system for education, giving every family a "coupon" to spend on private schooling what the government would spend to educate their children in public schools.

And he advocates increased private involvement in such traditionally government-dominated functions as mass transit.

"I just believe very strongly that we over-regulate--we overtax," Brown said. "Government in a free society should not be the dominant entity in our lives. For all intents and purposes, government has become that on the federal and state level. It pretty much regulates and taxes everything."

Although Sen. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach is considered more moderate than Brown, she said she agrees with him on the need to cut back on government regulation and bureaucracy. But even under Republican control, Bergeson said, she would remain skeptical of the Legislature's ability to reduce the size and reach of government.

"You have to go against the various constituencies that represent all those interests," she said. "I've found that government agencies have the closest thing to immortality."

Sen. John Seymour of Anaheim said most of his legislative goals are aimed at improving California's economy. The state needs to rebuild and expand its physical infrastructure, limit taxes and regulation, improve public education and provide an environment for affordable housing, he said.

"If I have one single goal, it would be to ensure that California becomes the fourth largest economic power in the world by the year 2000," Seymour said.

On social issues, Ferguson said he hopes a Republican-dominated Legislature would evaluate every program for its effect on the family.

"We would look at every bill and say: 'Does this help the families stay together? Is this good for the family?' And I think that would be the biggest difference," Ferguson said. "Those kinds of government assistance programs that harm the family or divide it further or cause it to break up more, we would not be in favor of."

Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Cypress said that government aid programs might be scaled back but that they would also be restructured to place the emphasis not on the program but on what individuals are doing to help themselves.

Government Plays a Role

"Many times there is a perception that Republicans just want free enterprise for everything," Allen said. "There are areas where government does play a role. I believe in limited government and accountable government."

More local control of government is a high priority among Orange County's Republican legislators. From education to land-use regulation to health and social services, the lawmakers said more of the state's tax dollars should be turned over to the local agencies that are closest to the people.

"I don't think the reservoir of all good ideas lies in Sacramento," said Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle of Huntington Beach.

The one principle that all of Orange County's Republican lawmakers seem to have in common is the idea that the purpose of government is not so much to lift the disadvantaged out of their plight as to provide a "level playing field" on which all can compete to the best of their ability.

Democrat Hanna compares this to Darwin's theory of evolution: survival of the fittest. Under such a doctrine, the disadvantaged--people who can't keep up for whatever reason--would be trampled, he argues.

But the Republicans say they believe increased personal freedom--and responsibility--would help everyone in the long run.

"I really believe that competition in anything is what encourages human behavior to be more effective and more efficient," Assemblyman Brown said. "I don't care if it's the dry cleaners on the corner or public education, competition encourages competence and effectiveness."

Assemblyman John Lewis of Orange said he supports abolishing the minimum wage and eliminating the federal, state and county departments of education. He would cut the budget of any program other than criminal justice in order to find more money for building highways.

"To the extent that you have a more productive society, better schools, a better transportation system, a better economy," he said, "you have more employment, you let the marketplace sort things out and you let free enterprise loose, I think the economic pie grows larger for everybody, not just those at the top."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World