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Sharing Power Means Sharing Flow of ‘Juice’

Call it “mother’s milk,” call it “juice.” It’s what nourishes politics. And in the Assembly, the end of the speakership fight means the politicians are being handed their buckets.

In any legislature, the committees serve as buckets to collect juice. Committee members--especially the chairs--extract campaign contributions from special interests lobbying bills before their committee.

But let’s not get too self-righteous about this. It’s a system the public presumably prefers over financing campaigns with tax dollars. So special interests fund the campaigns and buy influence. And too often, the interests and the public get what they pay for.

The last Legislature did pass a campaign reform bill that included partial public financing with contribution and spending limits. But Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the measure, declaring “it is indefensible to spend taxpayer money to finance political campaigns.” GOP lawmakers agreed; none voted for it.

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The author, Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), called his bill “the best opportunity to stop special interests and big money influence.” Democrats provided the votes for passage. But cynics believe many did so with confidence Wilson would kill the proposal.

Last week, the doling out of Assembly juice committees began the day after Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) finessed his way back into the speakership. Indeed, three prizes had been at stake in the power struggle, besides bragging rights and prestige.

One prize was control of the policy agenda; we heard a lot about that. The second was control of the spoils, particularly staff appointments. And the third was control of the juice committees, giving some politicians a leg up on the next elections. This nobody talked about publicly.

“ ‘Policy agenda'--that means who gets the money,” says a veteran Capitol staffer.

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Under the new power sharing, the 26 committee chairs are being divided evenly between the parties. There was a draft process: The GOP chose first, then the Democrats, and so forth. The selection criteria were both policy priority and juice potential.

Not all committees attract juice. The worst is Televising the Assembly, which Republicans got stuck with and gave to freshman Tom Woods of Shasta, who manages a Christian radio station. At the other extreme is Appropriations, through which every money bill must pass. The GOP picked it first and installed as chair ambitious Curt Pringle of Garden Grove.

“Appropriations is the granddaddy of juice,” notes a GOP operative.

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In fact, although Republicans lost the speakership, they walked off with some of the biggest juice committees. After Appropriations, they chose Insurance, Health (doctors), and Utilities and Commerce. “Utilities are loaded, and they’re government-dependent,” observes the pleased operative. The GOP also got Banking and Finance, Agriculture, and Environmental Safety and Toxics (oil).

Democrats retained two of their biggest juice committees: No. 1 pick Judiciary (trial lawyers) and Education (teachers unions).

Their second choice was Governmental Organization (gambling, horse racing, liquor). That committee was given to Paul Horcher of Diamond Bar as his reward for deserting the GOP and voting for Brown. Horcher needs the juice: He’s facing a recall and has a huge debt from past campaigns.

There was one key trade during the draft, conducted behind closed doors. Mischievous Democrats selected a committee the GOP sorely wanted, Utilities. So Republicans retaliated by choosing a Democratic favorite, Transportation. They then swapped.

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These aren’t just half-pint servings of juice. For the 1992 elections--1994 data isn’t available--Assembly members raised nearly $50 million.

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As for policy formation, the power sharing is made for gridlock because each committee will be balanced evenly between parties. That’s fine with Democrats. They’re in a blocking mode, trying to protect their old programs from Republican assault.

More welfare cuts? Probably. But tax reductions? Tough. No-fault auto insurance? Doubtful. Tort reform? Not now. Abolish teacher tenure? Forget it.

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The Assembly GOP came out of the November elections thinking of itself as a junior partner of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then Brown performed his sleight of hand. “Newt ruined the thinking capacity of Republicans in this house,” he says.

Gingrich enjoyed a clear majority. Assembly Republican leader Jim Brulte had only a one-vote margin that included a turncoat. Still, the GOP here is stronger than it has been in 24 years. And it hopes to add more muscle with extra juice.


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