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Legislators’ Challenge: Keep Compromises Coming

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State lawmakers made big news in 1989 by doing their jobs. On Wednesday, they return to the capital to see if they can make it a trend.

After years of stalemate, the governor, lawmakers and private-interest groups last year hammered out compromises aimed at relieving highway gridlock, ending a garbage crisis and rescuing a troubled program that compensates workers who are injured on the job.

But that progress did not wipe the slate clean.

Auto insurance premiums continue to climb. More state residents lack health insurance than ever before. Earthquake-ravaged Northern Californians are crying out for added help. The $2-billion failure of an Irvine-based savings and loan has raised questions about the state’s oversight of that industry. And the courts hold the fate of property tax-cutting Proposition 13 in their hands.

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Beyond that, various legislative leaders are set to propose ambitious new programs involving drug abuse, children’s services and growth management.

All this comes at a time when members of the Legislature may be more preoccupied than usual by a unique set of distractions.

As 1990 begins, one state senator is on trial for corruption while federal agents continue to investigate several of his colleagues. Two-term Gov. George Deukmejian, who plans to quit politics at the end of this year, is a lame duck, and the candidates to succeed him will be trying to chart the state’s course independently of the Legislature’s desires. Abortion rights advocates and their foes are drawing political lines in the sand. And several initiatives heading for the ballot strike at the heart of the way lawmakers conduct the people’s business.

One final wild card is the state budget, which Deukmejian will unveil Jan. 10. The Republican governor’s advisers are already warning that the budget for the 1990-91 fiscal year, though larger than the current year’s spending plan, will not be big enough to please everyone. And a major confrontation may be looming over health and welfare costs, which the governor’s top aide said are growing so fast that state spending cannot possibly keep pace.

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Michael Frost, Deukmejian’s chief of staff, said welfare caseloads are climbing at twice the rate of population growth, and other health and social service costs are increasing by 15% to 20% a year. He said the state has little choice but to end annual cost-of-living increases for welfare recipients and may have to cut benefits and tighten eligibility rules as well.

But if history is any indication, the governor’s budget proposals in this area will quickly draw flak from Democrats and, most likely, drain away much of the good will still remaining from 1989.

“We will probably be civil to each other until some time in April,” predicted Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento). “That’s not a lot of time.”

With such a small window of opportunity and a long agenda, lawmakers and the governor are expected to narrow the list of major issues on which they will concentrate.

Health insurance seems likely to be at or near the top of that short list.

The Legislature passed and the governor signed last year a bill by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) calling for a study to find the best way of providing affordable insurance to the estimated 5 million Californians who lack even minimum coverage against illness or accident.

Deukmejian responded by appointing a high-level task force of legislators, doctors, insurance executives and consumer and labor activists. The unprecedented group has been meeting since November in search of a consensus, which could form the starting point for legislative debate and action.

“The governor’s task force has brought together people who for years have been bitter enemies on this issue and put them in one room,” said Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles). “It’s been a serious process. It’s bearing fruit. People are proposing ideas and concepts and negotiating to produce a law in a way that previously hadn’t seemed possible.”

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Lawmakers--particularly Assembly Speaker Brown--also will be focusing on automobile insurance this year. Brown intends to follow up on a bill he authored last year to provide low-cost auto policies to low-income good drivers. The bill was vetoed by Deukmejian.

Brown’s measure conflicts with another by Assemblyman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton). Johnston’s bill would create a system under which motorists’ own insurance companies would pay their claims without regard to who caused the accident. That no-fault approach, which is the law in New York and several other states, enjoys broader Republican support but repeatedly has been bottled up in the Assembly by Democrats loyal to Brown.

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) also opposes the no-fault system, which has been bitterly fought by the Democratic leadership’s allies in the trial lawyer lobby. But Roberti said his opposition is “not fixed.”

“I am fixed in trying to be pragmatic, in trying to come up with what will reduce automobile rates,” Roberti said. “I still clearly lean against no-fault. But, in an attempt to bring about compromise, I think we have to abandon fixed ideological positions.”

Some other issues that will be getting attention in the second year of the 1989-90 session:

* Earthquake relief. Lawmakers, meeting in special session in November, passed a temporary, quarter-cent sales tax increase to raise $800 million for earthquake-stricken Northern California. But many local officials contend that the bail-out will fall short. Among the increased aid to be considered will be a proposal to give added grants to cities and counties to make up for sales tax revenue lost because business activity decreased in quake-damaged downtown districts.

* Family planning and abortion. Deukmejian’s decision to cut two-thirds of the state budget for contraceptive and women’s health services is being challenged in the courts. Meanwhile, legislative leaders and the Administration are negotiating in search of a way to restore much of the money in a way that conservatives can be assured will not benefit abortion clinics.

Seeking to turn public opinion their way after several well-publicized electoral defeats, anti-abortion groups are reportedly set to propose two measures that could put abortion rights groups on the spot. One measure would outlaw abortions sought because the parents are not happy with the sex of the fetus. The other would make it easier to file criminal charges against someone who injured a pregnant woman and caused the death of her fetus, a concept known as “fetal manslaughter.”

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* Savings and loan regulation. The failure of state-chartered Lincoln Savings & Loan has prompted lawmakers to question whether California regulators are doing enough to protect the savings of state residents. Senate and Assembly committees have been hearing testimony on the issue during the legislative recess, and a number of proposals are expected to be introduced when lawmakers return.

Then there is the ballot.

An election year is usually enough by itself to keep the Legislature from enacting major programs. But this year also involves two special elections to replace legislators who have moved to other positions, the election of a new governor and, likely, the consideration of a couple of dozen ballot measures, several of which involve the Legislature itself.

Already virtually assured of places on the ballot are two initiatives that would change the way the state draws new political districts each decade, a process known as “reapportionment.” Another pending measure, one of three pushed by Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp as part of his gubernatorial campaign, would limit members of the Legislature to 12 consecutive years in either the Assembly or Senate.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, must also confront problems still lingering from their approval last year of two constitutional amendments scheduled to appear on the June ballot.

One proposal, which addresses legislative ethics, would ban honorariums for state officeholders, require the Legislature to meet in public and prohibit lawmakers from lobbying the Legislature for a year after they leave office. The proposal also would establish a commission to set salaries for legislators, allowing them to obtain a pay raise without having to vote on it.

The problem is that the constitutional amendment sets several broad guidelines which are to be implemented by statutes passed by the Legislature. But lawmakers were unable to agree on the wording of those bills last year. If the proposed laws are not passed before the measure goes on the ballot, the voters will be asked to approve a likely pay raise without any guarantee that legislators’ outside incomes will be limited.

“I think if it is going to have any credibility at all, the Legislature has got to go on record in favor of tough enforcement and tough standards,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). “Otherwise, it just looks like a wish and a prayer and trust-me-on-this-one kind of thing. And the voters are not going to go for it.”

The other proposed constitutional amendment would alter the state’s spending limit and trigger a doubling of the gasoline tax, which would raise $18 billion for a 10-year highway and transit construction program. But the deal, considered one of the key accomplishments of 1989, is endangered by opposition from the building industry and a hostile stance taken by the California Teachers Assn.

“If the gas tax goes down, the summer is going to be spent figuring out what in the hell we do, because we will have no money for roads,” Assemblyman Katz said. “A major crisis becomes a severe crisis at that point. That will be a real nightmare.”

Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this article.


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