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Sacramento: Return From Chaos

Sacramento was so paralyzed, inept and fragmented last year that the California Legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian could not even agree on the appointment of a state treasurer, so the job went vacant for more than a year. The state was scraping the bottom of its fiscal barrel and the Assembly and Senate were seized by the political terror of an FBI corruption investigation. Willie L. Brown Jr. was on the brink of being toppled from his Assembly speakership by some petulant rascals known unaffectionately as the Gang of Five. And Deukmejian was preparing to make himself a lame-duck chief executive. Talk about effective, cooperative government: Sacramento made Paris of 1789 look calm, rational and happy.

The odds that the Republican governor and a Legislature controlled by opposing Democrats could recover in 1989 and work toward solving crucial state problems were worse than Gen. Manuel A. Noriega’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet to a remarkable degree, the governor and Legislature have wrought significant achievement so far in the 1989 session, in part through determined leadership, in part by lucky circumstance and in part because of the absolute need to recover some credibility with voters.

This is not to suggest that California government has turned the corner on all of its problems or that the governor and Legislature should spend too much time commending themselves as lawmakers set off this weekend on a monthlong summer recess. Many state programs still are under financed. The Legislature does not have an acceptable ethics rule. The governor remains stingy and obstinate on items like family planning. And considerable work remains to be done when the Legislature returns to Sacramento in late August. The state workers’ compensation program desperately needs reform and there are a number of unsettled health and insurance issues.

But the governor and Legislature at least have grappled cooperatively with some of the basic problems that threatened to render Sacramento impotent. Most notably, they agreed on legislation that would ease the Gann spending restraints on state and local government and launched the state’s first major new transportation program in decades, financed by higher motor-vehicle fuel taxes. The program also would adjust to more realistic levels the percentage of the state budget that is guaranteed to public schools each year. Voters still must approve the package next year, but few could have predicted a year ago that the governor and Democratic legislative leaders could have come together on such a program.

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Also, they finally filled the treasurer’s job and agreed on a bill restricting the sale of assault weapons in California. Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) rolled over the potent Sacramento gun lobby in a personal tour de force. Willie Brown solidified his hold on the speakership and become more involved in policy issues. The governor yielded on a tax increase and agreed to spend a good portion of unexpected new state revenues on programs he previously had cut severely.

All of this is hardly revolutionary. California’s leaders are only doing what they are elected to do. But that is a decided, and beneficial, change from the chaos of one year ago.


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