CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 140 : Initiative Cuts More Than Term of Office

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not content to drive most members of the Assembly and state Senate out of their jobs by 1996, backers of Proposition 140 want lawmakers to feel the bite of a dissatisfied electorate even more quickly.

One of two term-limit initiatives on the Nov. 6 ballot, Proposition 140 would immediately remove lawmakers from a retirement system that proponents describe as "overly generous" and "extravagant." Also, effective in July, the measure would slash the Legislature's operating budget by as much as half.

Proposition 140's term limits have gotten most of the attention--six years for Assembly members and eight years for state senators and most other state elected officials. But the other features are also riling incumbent officeholders and legislative staff members, who use terms like brutal and vindictive, Draconian and spiteful to describe the measure's impact and the motivation behind it.

But the principal sponsor of the initiative, Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, says his only objective is to scale down what he regards as an oversized government institution and turn it over to citizen-legislators.

Citing polls in support of limiting the benefits and terms of lawmakers, Schabarum has said repeatedly that people are "fed up" with legislative behavior and the attendant trappings of power.

To discourage those who seek office for its perks, Schabarum has said he deliberately took aim at "the extraordinary privileges and benefits that go with being a member of the Legislature."

Proposition 140 "is intended to take away an extraordinarily generous retirement system and, in so doing, eliminate a very dramatic motivation for folks to stick around," Schabarum said in testimony at a legislative hearing.

"If you don't know it, believe me," Schabarum told lawmakers, "a whole bunch of Californians are sick and tired of the money the Legislature is spending on itself."

Legislators themselves, however, were quick to point out that Schabarum's own salary and retirement benefits as an 18-year member of the County Board of Supervisors are far more lucrative than those for anyone who has served exclusively in the Legislature, whether active or retired.

And opponents contend that the proposed cut in the Legislature's operating budget would lead to massive layoffs and leave the lawmakers dependent for information on executive branch bureaucrats and lobbyists for special interests.

"The Draconian budget cut will absolutely strip the Legislature of its ability to independently evaluate and measure public policy," said Jay Ziegler, spokesman for the No on 131 and 140 campaign.

Proposition 131 would also limit terms but would allow legislators to stay in office longer--12 years for both Assembly and state Senate members. If both pass, the term limits would be set by the one getting the most votes. But other provisions of both would go into effect.

UC Berkeley Prof. Bruce Cain, who chairs the No on 131 and 140 campaign, said the elimination of the pension plan in the Schabarum measure was "part of the vindictiveness" of the initiative.

"Schabarum makes it clear that he is leaving office mad at politics and mad at his colleagues," Cain said.

No one disputes that legislators have a good retirement system.

Lawmakers can retire at any age after 20 years of service and collect full benefits--up to 67% of their highest salary. A veteran legislator retiring this year, for example, would collect $27,211 yearly. Retirement payments automatically increase each year with the consumer price index.

But opponents of Proposition 140 point out that Schabarum's own potential benefits, as one of five members of the County Board of Supervisors, far exceed any payments to career legislators from their retirement system. That is largely because the existing supervisor salary of $94,344 a year is significantly higher than the salary of a legislator, $40,816 a year.

After 18 years on the county board, the 61-year-old Schabarum would receive at least $42,794 a year from the county employee retirement system. Adding five years of credit he earned while serving in the state Assembly could boost that figure by more than $10,000 a year. Opponents contend that his benefits could be as high as $60,000 a year.

Schabarum would not disclose his retirement benefits.

Schabarum, in an article written for The Times opinion pages, contended that "every incumbent" legislator could realize as much as $5,000 to $10,000 a month from the pension program. Officials familiar with the system, however, say that is not the case. They said that some former elected officials can command pensions of that size, but that legislators cannot.

The highest-paid former lawmaker, Assemblyman Lester A. McMillan, a Los Angeles Democrat who left office in 1968, receives a pension of $3,647 a month, or $43,764 a year.

More typical is former Sen. John Foran (D-San Francisco), who retired in 1986 after 22 years of service. His pension is $2,308 a month, or $27,696 a year.

The California Constitution, amended in 1986, bars new legislative retirees from receiving pensions larger than the salaries of those now in office. Under the Schabarum initiative, current legislators with more than four years of service would retain rights to benefits they have already earned. But beginning in November, all lawmakers would enroll in Social Security for additional benefits.

Calling the elimination of the legislators' retirement system "spiteful," opponents of Proposition 140 are angrier still at the cuts it would make in the Legislature's operating budget--a 48% reduction if Schabarum's interpretation is correct, beginning in July. Total spending would drop from $219 million a year to $114 million.

But Legislative Counsel Bion M. Gregory disputes Schabarum's reading of his own initiative. If Gregory is right, the reduction would still be a substantial 38%.

The impact on 3,200 legislative employees would be severe.

"If (the) Schabarum (initiative) passes, the only way to meet its requirements would be a substantial reduction in Senate staff, which could reach 50%," said Cliff Berg, executive officer for the Senate Rules Committee, in a memo to Senate employees in August.

Berg and others argue that the massive budget reduction is simply not justified.

California taxpayers spend more on the Legislature than do their counterparts in other states, according to figures compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the Legislature's operating budget costs about $6.07 per resident--trailing 16 other states.

A. Alan Post, the former legislative analyst for the state, argues that the longtime professional staff--the experts on issues who provide information to lawmakers--would likely be the first to lose their jobs if Proposition 140 were to pass.

Describing Proposition 140 as "bad medicine for the state of California," he predicted that if large numbers of new lawmakers were to move into office because of the measure's term limits, they would bring with them "the new people who got them elected" and let more experienced legislative staffers go.

But Lewis Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee and a co-sponsor of Proposition 140, asserts that 120 legislators do not need 25 or more staff members each to do the job.

This is not the first time voters have been asked to make deep cuts in the Legislature's budget.

In June, 1984, voters approved by a 53% to 47% margin an initiative intended to reduce the power of the Assembly Speaker and cut the Legislature's operating budget by 30%. But the measure was tossed out by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement of the power of the Legislature.

Proposition 140, however, amends the state Constitution and is unlikely to be overturned.

Originally, Schabarum was considering a ballot measure that would have restored a part-time Legislature. It would have turned back the calendar to before 1966, when voters approved a state constitutional amendment that in effect made the job of legislator a full-time occupation.

"I ran a poll asking the public what they think of part-time or limited terms," Schabarum said in an interview. "The part-timer deal is too difficult to explain. It becomes too confusing. This (Proposition 140) is clean, simple."

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