Fiscal Standoff May Aid Schabarum Initiative


Someone finally dared to say the "S-word" out loud on the state Assembly floor.

The S-word, shorthand for the "Schabarum Initiative," had been only whispered around the Capitol as the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

But this week, as Assembly Democrats and Republicans again took to blaming each other for the highly publicized failure to pass a new state budget, Assemblyman William Baker (R-Danville) turned to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and said the unspeakable:

"Do you think you won the press war last week? I don't think you won. I don't think we won. I think Schabarum won."

Schabarum is pugnacious Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, a Republican and sponsor of a radical ballot initiative that would strike hard at what many elected state office holders hold most dear: incumbency, pensions and their own budgets.

The measure would impose for the first time limits on terms of office--from the governor and to top state officials and legislators. It would also abolish the generous retirement program of legislators and enact stiff cutbacks in the Legislature's own spending.

While many in the Legislature regard the Schabarum proposal, Proposition 140, as a direct attack upon them, it will be one of two such proposals to go before voters on Nov. 6. Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp is sponsoring a similar initiative to limit terms of legislators and state officeholders, Proposition 131.

The Van de Kamp measure whipped up a firestorm of anger in the Legislature earlier as he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor.

State government is approaching the fourth week without a budget because of a political standoff between Assembly Democrats and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and his Assembly GOP allies. Many legislators, their staffers, lobbyists, political consultants and others have begun voicing concern that the deadlock will play into the hands of Schabarum.

"Whatever the impasse, it helps that initiative because it's just something that will strike against the Legislature," said Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

On the Republican side, Sen. Ed Davis of Santa Clarita said the "embarrassing" deadlock has provided "the greatest campaign propaganda that Pete Schabarum could ever imagine."

For his part, Schabarum, who spent five years in the Assembly before he was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 and will retire this year, viewed the paralysis as a big reason to vote for his so-called "Political Reform Act of 1990."

"It is certainly another example of . . . a major issue that the Legislature chooses not to deal with," he said Tuesday. "Therefore, who needs them as they are currently constituted? The public needs to get some folks in who are more interested in the public business than their own personal survival."

Did his blame apply to Deukmejian as well, he was asked. "It takes two to tango," Schabarum said.

At the Capitol, Democrats blame Republicans and the governor, and Republicans blame Democrats for a "paralysis of leadership." But opinion surveys, including a Los Angeles Times poll last winter, show that citizens don't make such clear distinctions and hold the Legislature as an institution in very low regard.

Schabarum and Van de Kamp, who made his "Clean Government Initiative" an early theme in his campaign for governor, sought to capitalize on what they saw as citizen disenchantment with their elected state representatives.

There is now no limit on the number of terms a California state legislator may serve; senators are elected to four-year terms and Assembly members to two-year terms. The Schabarum plan would limit members of the Assembly to three terms and senators to two terms starting with the Nov. 6 election.

Critics maintain that the restricted terms constitute a "lifetime ban" on returning to the Assembly or Senate after an incumbent's last term has expired.

One of the critics is Brown, who said he believes the Schabarum measure is aimed at him. "I think Republicans genuinely believe that the (Assembly) leadership on the Democratic side of the aisle can't be dislodged through the normal electoral process. They are trying anything," Brown said.

The Van de Kamp plan would limit Assembly members to six successive terms and senators to three, for a total of 12 years each. After a one-term break in service, a former legislator could run again for the Assembly or Senate.

Under the Schabarum initiative, the governor and state superintendent of public instruction would be restricted to two four-year terms. Other statewide officers, such as lieutenant governor, would be restricted to two terms in the same office, but could seek other office.

Another major provision would abolish the legislative retirement program, except for previously vested members, and require lawmakers to participate only in the federal Social Security retirement, disability and health insurance system.

A third feature would hand the Legislature an estimated 38% cut in the amount it can spend. Broken down by member, this would reduce the Legislature's budget per year from approximately $1.5 million to $950,000.

Times staff writer Douglas P. Shuit contributed to this story.

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