Slicing at the Heart, Not the Fat : Latest casualties of Proposition 140 least deserve the chopping block

Proposition 140 looked bad enough on paper. It is looking even worse in practice. Passed by voters last November, it imposes strict term limits on most elected state officials and deep, arbitrary cuts in spending on the Legislature. Opponents of the measure filed suit in the California Supreme Court last February challenging its constitutionality. That ultimate ruling is not expected until fall.

Meanwhile, the mandated budget cuts take effect on July 1, and the bloodletting has long since begun. Since November, 200 employees of the state Senate have left, and 444 Assembly positions are being eliminated. Eighteen percent of all legislative district offices have closed. Many Californians must now make a long-distance phone call to Sacramento to talk to a legislative representative.

So far Proposition 140 has meant the loss of enormous institutional expertise about the workings of this complex state and a decline in local constituent service. All told, Proposition 140 threatens the necessary balance among the state's three branches by critically undermining the strength of the Legislature relative to the executive and judiciary. What's more, full implementation of Proposition 140's prescribed cuts will also mean closing the offices of the state legislative analyst and the auditor general. This week Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill and acting Auditor General Kurt R. Sjoberg gave notice to their 250 employees that as of June 30 they will be unemployed.

These cuts must not stand. That they appear necessary to comply with the letter of Proposition 140 reveals this measure's unthinking, meat-ax approach to state government.

These agencies do not have catchy titles but each is indispensable. The auditor conducts independent audits of the executive and judicial branches of government. The analyst's office conducts nonpartisan analyses of the fiscal impact of proposals from the Legislature and the governor (thousands of bills a year), writes ballot summaries and performs other policy functions. The office was set up in 1941, in part because by then the state's growth and diversity had taxed legislators' ability to understand fiscal and policy questions.

California's legislative analyst's office was the first in the nation. Other states now have similar institutions, but few have the high standards and resolutely nonpartisan character that have prevailed here.

On Tuesday opponents of Proposition 140 petitioned the state Supreme Court to delay further implementation of the Draconian initiative pending the court's decision on its merits. The court would best serve California by granting an emergency stay and invalidating Proposition 140.

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