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Legislature Winds Up Work of ‘Worst Year’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clearing the decks to deal with reapportionment, the Legislature early Saturday completed nearly all the work on its 1991 legislative package, and said goodby to a year most lawmakers would like to forget.

“This is truly the worst year I can remember,” said Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, who has survived 21 years of political wars in the Legislature.

Maddy was assessing the combined effect of dealing with a $14.3-billion deficit, passing more than $7 billion a year in tax increases and forcing reductions in welfare, health and state university programs. On top of that was the painful necessity of dealing with passage last November of Proposition 140, which required a near-40% cut in the Legislature’s operating budget, eliminated lawmakers’ pensions and will limit their terms beginning in 1996.

Preoccupied with budget-related issues for much of the year and then facing the task of redrawing political boundary lines, lawmakers did not enact meaningful legislation on two issues many of them had at the top of their priority list in January: the need to provide low-cost automobile insurance and affordable health coverage for the 5 million Californians now said to be unprotected.

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When they return next January, legislators will be faced with these same unresolved issues, but with additional risks if they do not act. Gov. Pete Wilson has threatened an initiative campaign to bring about a no-fault insurance system and the California Medical Assn. said it might underwrite a similar effort to enact universal health insurance.

Despite growing problems related to California’s five-year drought, the Legislature also failed to act on major water legislation. A vote was delayed until next year on one of the most important bills--legislation that would make it easier for farmers to sell water to drought-stricken cities.

“The $14.3-billion shortfall so consumed Gov. Wilson and the Legislature that we could not make headway,” said Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Assembly Insurance Committee and sponsor of health insurance legislation.

Still another much debated issue that was not resolved in 1991 and will be back next year is the desire by lawmakers, chiefly Democrats, to revise California’s initiative system. Some have advocated making it tougher for citizens to pass initiatives and somehow end so-called “ballot-box budgeting” that critics say has tied the Legislature’s hands and limited its ability to tackle tough issues.

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While 1991 may have been a bad year for lawmakers, it was another good year for insurance, medical, legal and other lobbying groups that were able to bend legislative actions their way.

Attorneys’ groups and insurance companies managed to water down a so-called worker’s compensation reform bill sought by another powerful interest, California’s corporations and, along with medical groups, were said to have contributed to the defeat of automobile and health insurance reforms. Animal rights groups were able to get a bill passed that would ban the use of rabbits in determining whether cosmetics or household cleaning products irritate human eyes or skin--a bill vetoed by Wilson.

Otherwise, of the roughly 4,000 pieces of legislation introduced this year in the Assembly and Senate, only a relatively few were noteworthy--aside from the unprecedented package of tax and budget bills enacted to close the record deficit.

The Legislature passed a bill requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, which Wilson signed into law. Another bill would provide limited protection for redwood forests and other timberlands. But Wilson is expected to veto it. Homosexuals would be protected from job discrimination under another bill; public schools would have to educate students on AIDS, under other legislation.

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Lawmakers also voted to repeal two tax measures passed as part of the budget deal. One would extend tax credits to renters that were repealed in the budget action--a measure likely to be vetoed by Wilson. The other bill would eliminate a sales tax extended to publishers of free newspapers. It is supported by the governor.

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), when asked to define legislative accomplishments during the 1991 session, said, “The budget. The budget. The budget.”

Said Republican Leader Maddy: “We were totally consumed by just two issues. We started on the budget in mid-March, which is the earliest we’ve ever started on it, and it lasted well into July. It was night-and-day work and, in terms of time consumption, it just overwhelmed us. Then we took a brief summer recess and we picked right up with redistricting, and we’ve been doing that steadily since.”

Other than the budget and reapportionment, Maddy said “we can’t point to too much.”

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Bill Livingstone, Wilson’s press secretary, said the governor was proud of his record with the Legislature this year, particularly the way he dealt with the budget deficit.

“For too long we have papered over problems that have plagued the state,” Livingstone said, noting the enactment of measures he said will produce long-term budget savings.

Livingstone cited a 4% cut in grants to people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children and a five-year freeze on future increases in welfare payments. He also pointed to a $2-billion shift in state mental health and welfare programs from the state to counties, along with money to pay for the services, and legislation that made a start in overhauling the worker’s compensation system that he estimated will save California businesses $100 million a year.

In a flurry of late session activity, a series of “preventive government” bills sought by Wilson and designed to prevent problems before they happen passed the Legislature.

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One of them, a “healthy start” bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), contains $20 million for grants to link schools and social agencies to make all services for poor children and their families available at one location.

A measure by Assemblywoman Bev Hansen (R-Santa Rosa) adds $45 million in state money to about $186 million in federal funds for the preschool Head Start program.

However, other key parts of Wilson’s legislative agenda got sidetracked as the 1991 session wound down and the governor and Democrats began squabbling over redistricting.

Legislation to establish the new Office of Child Development and Education, which is supposed to administer many of the new “preventive” programs, appears to be hung up in the reapportionment squabble. The bill, by Sen. Becky Morgan (R-Los Altos Hills) would establish the new Cabinet-level office, with a budget of $1.7 million for next year.

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Another bill kept from a vote Friday night is necessary to ratify an unprecedented collective bargaining agreement between the Wilson Administration and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. The agreement would cut the pay of 18,000 prison guards and officers by 5% and require them to pay for increased costs of health and dental insurance.

Brown, on Friday night, ordered the bill held in the Ways and Means Committee. “I don’t agree with the 5% salary cut,” Brown told reporters early Saturday.

Times staff writer William Trombley contributed to this story.


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