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Capitol losing budget expert

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Times Staff Writer

In a Capitol increasingly riven by partisan bickering and bitterness, one of the few steady hands lawmakers have counted on to rise above it all and bring clarity to policy issues is Elizabeth Hill.

But on Thursday, she announced that she is calling it quits.

The impending departure of Hill, the Legislature’s chief budget analyst for more than two decades, comes as the state is in the midst of a budget crisis of historic proportions. She won’t vacate the post until the scheduled end of the legislative session this summer, but already many in and around the statehouse are fretting about her decision to put down her calculator and pick up her golf clubs.

She said her decision was made with no ill will toward a Legislature that has increasingly ignored what most experts agree is her sound budget advice in favor of political expediency.

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The 58-year-old who has been known for years in Sacramento as “the budget nun” said she will be leaving with one major regret: “The budget remains unbalanced.”

Year after year, her staff in the Legislative Analyst’s Office has shown lawmakers the least painful path to a balanced budget. Unlike the lawmakers she serves, Hill is not beholden to anti-tax pledges or ties to unions and other special interests and is thus free to call on legislators to rein in spending when it spirals or to raise taxes rather than borrow.

Lawmakers have listened only occasionally. The state’s finances have been out of balance for nearly seven straight years, despite surges of revenue when the economy picked up dramatically after recovering from the dot-com bust.

“I am sorry to see her go,” said former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. “She has done a job that is not easy to do.”

Most recently, Hill declared that the budget proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did such a poor job of setting policy priorities that it was incumbent on her office to present an alternative blueprint. Within weeks of its release, the anti-tax crusader Schwarzenegger was endorsing a key provision in it: the reduction or elimination of $2.7 billion in tax breaks available to California businesses and individuals.

The proposal remains in limbo in the Legislature.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant, says Hill “has been a source of sanity in a fundamentally insane environment. . . . The kind of thoughtful, deliberative process that we used to see in the Capitol has evolved into something where things happen much more quickly and with less deliberation. Legislators feel they have to get in, get something done and show some kind of concrete achievement before they are pushed out by term limits and running for another office.”

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Sragow said that kind of frenzy was evident in the universal healthcare plan that Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and the governor were championing until it was killed by the state Senate in January.

The administration had declared the multibillion-dollar plan fiscally sound, even with the state confronting what was then a $14-billion deficit (it ultimately grew to $16 billion).

Hill put the brakes on. Her office warned that the new health plan was in danger of running out of money within a few years. The proposed tobacco tax increase that the plan’s backers said would cover the costs, Hill said, was not enough.

Her analysis warned that the proposal threatened to cost taxpayers billions more than projected by the administration and could very well force deeper program cuts or tax increases.

“We need to call it as we see it,” Hill said Thursday, “speak truth to power.”

That’s what she always did, said former Senate leader John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat. “She didn’t do me any favors. She called them as she saw them, even if you didn’t want her to.”

She chose her words carefully while reflecting before a gaggle of reporters on her 22 years as chief analyst. She bemoaned the chronic budget imbalance but demurred from blaming lawmakers.

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Instead, she focused on how the process has become so unwieldy: budgeting by ballot initiative, term limits, huge expansions of government programs to serve a rapidly growing population.

Then she offered a brief history lesson on the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which was founded in 1941. Hill is only the fourth person to lead it. Congressional officials were so impressed by the work the analyst’s office was doing in its early days that they used it as a model to create the Congressional Budget Office in 1974.

Hill even paid tribute to the much-maligned Legislature for allowing the office to thrive.

“Here we are, a staff arm of the Legislature, often making legislators’ lives more difficult,” she said.

John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, called Hill “the last of the old generation,” a holdover from a time when lawmakers were more apt to work together across party lines. Hill’s analyses were often used as a starting point for compromise.

“It used to be that the analyst would say things and people would do them because it was the analyst who said them,” Ellwood said. “It is becoming harder and harder. Analysts are still saying things, but I don’t think lawmakers often do them.”

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evan.halper@latimes.com

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