Sacramento is losing its legislative luster

It used to be a dream job -- making law in the nation’s most populous state.

But California voters aren’t the only ones who’ve grown frustrated with the Legislature. Increasingly, lawmakers themselves are giving up on the statehouse.

Some are dropping reelection bids. Others are leaving for what was once viewed as a step down: local government. And finding top-flight candidates to run for legislative seats has become a challenge.

“It’s not as much fun as it used to be,” said Kevin Spillane, a GOP strategist who recruits Republican candidates for the state Assembly.

Blame a fiscal horizon marred by deficits as far as the eye can see. Or terms limits that have created a merry-go-round for officeholders. Add ever-hardening partisanship, abysmal public approval ratings and rank-and-file lawmakers’ relative powerlessness in the deal-making process.


“Who wants to grow up and be held in low esteem by 87% of the people and have to deal with the budget and not have a darned thing to say about it?” asked Juan Arambula, an independent assemblyman from Fresno who has decided not to run for the state Senate next year after his term in the lower house ends.

The path to political power was once clear: a steady climb from local to state to national office. Now, more officials are bouncing from local to state office and back again.

For instance, Los Angeles City Council member Paul Koretz, who was sworn in last summer, opted for city government over the state Senate after terming out of the Assembly in 2006.

“It’s like night and day in terms of the ability to actually get something done,” said Koretz.

Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, another Democrat, moved his family from Burbank to Los Angeles earlier this year in hopes of joining Koretz on the council. If Krekorian wins a heated runoff today against former movie-industry executive Christine Essel, a third of the 15-member council will be former state lawmakers.

“The international collapse of the economy has left us with such a shortfall of revenues that we’re not able to achieve the positive agenda that I had hoped . . . in Sacramento,” Krekorian said.

Term limits

Strict term limits (six years in the Assembly, eight in the Senate) are another factor. Krekorian, for instance, could serve 12 years on the City Council but only three more in the Assembly.

John Benoit, a Palm Desert Republican, resigned as a state senator this month for an appointed seat on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. He derided service in the Assembly as “a six-year dead-end job with no retirement [benefits].”

Riverside County has no limits on supervisors’ terms, so Benoit can serve there “as long as the good Lord gives me breath and the people decide to vote me in,” he said.

And the pay in some local posts is better than legislators’ $116,208 base salary, which will be cut by 18% in December. Benoit will earn $143,031 in his new job.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas earns roughly $178,000, much more than in the state Senate post he resigned in 2008.

Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), who terms out of the Assembly in 2010, is running for Ventura County treasurer-tax collector next year, though she has no background in accounting or finance. The post has a salary of $150,445.

A few state lawmakers have always returned to local government, particularly in big cities and counties. Although not every departing lawmaker’s motive is clear, there’s certainly a new sense of powerlessness helping to drive them from the Capitol.

Arambula, a former Fresno County supervisor, put it this way: “On the board of supervisors, five people make decisions. In Sacramento, five people make decisions -- I’m just not one of them.”

Arambula was voicing lawmakers’ “widespread frustration” with the Big Five -- legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who make deals in closed-door talks. It’s in those private meetings, not in open legislative hearings, that final details of the state budget and almost every major policy package have been hammered out in recent years.

“If you’re not in the Big Five, you’re sort of out in the cold,” said Koretz.

Years ago, the Legislature’s powerful committee chairmen lorded over entire industries. These days, freshman members chair panels on subjects in which they have little background. Term limits mean many legislators aren’t around long enough to navigate California’s maze of laws with ease.

Little opportunity

The power that comes with such knowledge has gradually shifted to the Capitol’s permanent residents: legislative staff and, in particular, lobbyists. Big Five talks have grown in importance and frequency as leaders have increasingly feared that policies hashed out in public would be summarily killed by special interests

“There is minimal opportunity for input,” said Arambula.

Sacramento’s intense partisan atmosphere makes any bipartisan deal-making politically perilous. Political moderates have been locked out of their offices and even tossed from the Capitol entirely in recent years.

Former Senate GOP leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto worked across party lines to broker a controversial budget deal in February. He was promptly ousted in a midnight coup by his conservative GOP colleagues. Cogdill announced this month he would not seek reelection in 2010.

Assemblyman Danny Gilmore (R-Hanford) had to run twice to win his seat; now he is mulling leaving office next year after a single term.

“This has been the most frustrating year of my life,” Gilmore told the Bakersfield Californian. “That place is . . . broken.”

Voters agree. The recent Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll showed that only 3% of registered voters “strongly approved” of the Legislature’s performance. An October Field Poll pegged the Legislature’s approval rating at 13%, an all-time low after decades of surveying.

Power, perks and some prestige remain available to state legislators. There’s the salary, a state-paid car, more than $30,000 a year in tax-free living expenses and an at-the-ready staff.

But the constant budget shortfalls have stunted lawmakers’ policy ambitions. Instead, they spend their time haggling over spending cuts and tax increases, neither of which is politically popular. Multibillion-dollar budget deficits projected for the next several years guarantee more of the same.

“It is bleak,” said Arambula, who left the Democratic Party last summer. “If I could make a difference, then I would put up with the difficulties. It’s when you can’t affect the outcome that a person has to wonder: Is it worth the effort to be in Sacramento?”