NEWS ANALYSIS : Trust Low, Tempers High Among Edgy Lawmakers


What often matters most in the Legislature is something that is unspoken: old-fashioned trust.

Especially at the end of a session with scores of bills awaiting action--as is the case with tonight’s scheduled end of a two-year session--lawmakers count on their colleagues to tell the truth about the contents of pending legislation.

The legislators simply cannot know every detail tucked into every bill, so sometimes even suspect measures coast through both houses based on the author’s word. Other bills can be quietly killed because of a lack of faith in a legislator’s word.


But as lawmakers pack to leave town at the end of this session--dubbed by some “the session from hell"--the level of trust seems to be at an all-time low.

The reason most cited by lawmakers is the wrenching summer-long state budget deadlock that forced cranky legislators to cancel vacations with their families and stay in Sacramento. One lobbyist said that just about everyone in the Capitol, from lobbyists to legislators, “is burned out” from the budget battle.

“There’s an edge to everything,” agreed Sen. William Leonard (R-Upland). “It is much worse than the normal end of session.”

Adding to lawmakers’ stress is the certainty that they no longer have the job security they enjoyed for decades. For one thing, the voters two years ago imposed term limits. For another, the state Supreme Court enacted a sweeping redrawing of legislative boundaries that threatens incumbents.

Now, with nerves rubbed raw, legislators, who usually shield their suspicions of each other from view, are increasingly elevating personal fights to open spats--with the result that time-honored trust is taking a public thrashing.

Take the case of Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-San Jose), who during the weekend was publicly accused by colleagues of misrepresenting a bill that would kill a proposed state prison near downtown Los Angeles.

In floor debate, Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville) charged that Areias had waffled when initially questioned about the proposal. “He didn’t level with the membership,” Baker said.

Areias scoffed at the assertion by Baker and his GOP colleagues that he had not fully explained the bill. But moments later, he was called up to the podium by Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) for an apparent scolding as the chamber watched.

Off the Assembly chamber floor, invective is also on the rise. Lame-duck Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson) complained to a reporter that three fellow Democrats who supported one of his primary election opponents keep on voting against his bills. The outspoken Floyd remarked that he would be “the first to push any of the three down the open elevator shaft.”

One of Floyd’s supposed betrayers, Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman of Sherman Oaks, denied the charge, saying that he always votes against Floyd’s “special interest bills.” He agreed, however, that relations with Floyd are strained, saying: “I’ve said hello, and he’s said a few things to me that I wouldn’t repeat.”

Traditional rivalry between members of the two houses also has flared as the session concludes and lawmakers stretch to save their pet bills from death, or, conversely, scramble to kill the bills of others.

Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) sought to bottle up a bill by Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-Baldwin Park), apparently because she had voted against a proposal he favors to reduce hazardous waste hauling fees.

In an unusual letter--made available to reporters--to Secretary of the Senate Rick Rollens, Tanner contended that Calderon’s ethics “are questionable, at best.”

On another occasion in the Senate, as the clock neared midnight Friday, Leonard took to the floor to deplore “a profane and obscene” personal attack against Gov. Pete Wilson by Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista).

Peace, who is known for his tirades, a few minutes earlier had erupted in anger at a committee hearing and turned on his microphone to call Wilson an obscene name. Later, he sent Wilson a letter of apology.

While tempers may explode at the Capitol, there also seems to be a new public candor about the ancient practice of trading favors.

Take the case of Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Fremont), who last week provided the decisive vote to approve an obscure bill to exempt the City of Industry from certain state requirements to build low- and moderate-income housing.

The exemption was sought by Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier) and Assemblyman Paul Horcher (R-Diamond Bar).

Later, Eastin was asked why she as a Northern Californian would get involved in a strictly parochial local government issue in Southern California. Recalling that Hill and Horcher earlier had been supportive of budget legislation she favored, Eastin said she decided to give them an aye vote when they needed help.

She conceded that it was a “close call” for her in deciding to vote for the housing bill, but she added offhandedly, “there are scoundrels on both sides.”

Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) said that legislative horse-trading sometimes hinges on “the concept of a swap. It’s not that Horcher is a nice guy, it’s that he gave them (Democrats) a vote” on a budget-related issue.

In other instances, legislators who have served together for many years make appeals purely on the basis of longtime personal and political ties.

For Senate Democrats, perhaps the most agonizing vote to cast came on a compromise school spending bill that cut into education programs, but not as deeply as Wilson had proposed.

To Senate Leader David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) fell the unpleasant task of securing Democrats to provide the minimum 27 votes needed for passage of the proposal to the Assembly. On a drawn-out preliminary roll call late Friday night the bill fell one vote short.

Unsuccessful at getting other Democrats to switch their votes from no to aye, Roberti turned to his longtime philosophical ally, liberal Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland). They spoke quietly at Petris’ desk for a few minutes and Petris switched to become the 27th aye vote.

A brief burst of sympathetic applause rippled throughout the chamber. Later, Roberti was asked what tactic he had used to persuade Petris to vote for what virtually every member agreed was a “bad” bill.

Roberti said he told his friend: “It’s the right thing to do, and you know it.”