Speaker's Commission
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Robert Hertzberg: Shaping
Up a Disorderly House

By Peter Schrag
Sacramento Bee Capitol Alert
August 9, 2000

These days, you're not doing a politician a favor by saying that he loves his job or enjoys the business he's in. But Robert Hertzberg, the Assembly's hyperactive speaker, surely does. Barring unforeseen events, he'll probably remain in that post until the end of next year, and he means to use every moment of it.

Four months after he formally took over the job, Hertzberg, who coins adjectives like "Unruhesque," believes he can "bring back the glory days of the Legislature" as a co-equal branch of government. He wants it become something more than a collection of 120 individuals each pursuing his or her own agenda and "going to the governor to kiss his tuchis" in order to get support on some pet bill. (The adjective refers to Jesse Unruh who, as speaker in the 1960s, professionalized the Legislature and for a time gave it -- and himself -- national stature. The noun you can look up in any Yiddish dictionary.)

Not that Hertzberg has anything against fellow Democrat Gray Davis or any other particular governor. He says he gets along fine with Davis. The tuchis is institutional, just as the ambition, however admirable, is probably beyond realization. In this era of term limits, short attention spans, high-cost political campaigns and extreme distrust of government, the chances of engineering any major reform are slim.

Still he's going to try -- and the try is surely worth it. Hertzberg believes he can get beyond the tendency of the Legislature merely to react ad hoc to events or to other people's agendas. He hopes to dampen the members' tendency, exacerbated by the haste produced by term limits, to introduce hundreds of redundant bills in the hope of quickly delivering on some promise or some pet issue. He wants to get his house to operate with more intelligence and focus on genuinely important matters.

Indeed, he thinks he's already begun to do it. On certain things, as on parts of this year's education budget, "the executive is responding to us instead of us responding to him." That may not be the way those transactions are perceived on the outside. The Legislature this year extracted compromises from the governor on things like college scholarships but the overall shape of the budget adhered closely to Davis' own priorities. Ultimately Davis will probably get credit for the improvements that were forced on him.

But if Hertzberg can get his own house to function more effectively and intelligently, he'll have done a lot. Working with Republican Bill Leonard, he's created an intensive eight-day course for new members and novice staffers that's packed with four-inch thick binders on everything from bill-making to budgets to ethics. That won't overcome the loss of the experience and seniority that were taken for granted in the pre-term-limits era, but it's something.

He's also assembled a three-person professional staff to strengthen legislative oversight of state agencies and to make sure "that the executive branch is implementing our view of the laws we wrote." He is still talking about reforming the state's dysfunctional state-local fiscal relationship. He would like to modify the state's stringent term-limits law to a more workable "universal" 12 year limit for all offices, state and local. He hopes, he often says, "to change the culture of this place."

To some extent, the culture has already changed, thanks to better leadership on both sides of the aisle. Compared to the acrimony and bitterness associated with the speakership fights of the mid-1990s, the current Assembly is a bed of bipartisan cooperation and comity. Hertzberg, a protg of former speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who took the first steps toward state-local fiscal reform two years ago, was elected speaker on a bipartisan voice vote. But when it comes to the substance of real fiscal reform and the restoration of legislative clout against a governor with a line-item veto, the odds are slimmer.

Hertzberg is still vague on where oversight will go next. The Assembly's handling of the Quackenbush scandal was a model of fairness and probity. But the most likely candidates for the next round -- among them the Department of Transportation, whose director was forced to resign in the face of misconduct charges, and the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs -- won't be as easy. Quackenbush is a Republican who had blatantly misused his office. Most other executive agencies are Davis' responsibility.

There will be other obstacles as well, time not least among them. This summer and fall, says Hertzberg, he has to raise $1 million a month to help finance races for the 20 or so competitive seats in his house. A veteran of scores of political campaigns before he ever ran for office, he expects legislative contests, costing a total of perhaps $100 million, to easily break all previous records. Because term limits dictates that at least one third of all seats will be open in each two-year cycle, the arms race becomes all the more intense. So much for well-intended reforms.

Then comes the 2000-2001 session, much of which will be preoccupied with a matter dearer to officeholders than any other -- reapportionment. Here, too, he will be absorbed in a process that will distract him from reform. Finally there are two depressing facts: (1) that institutional loyalties under the dome are even shorter than the six years term limits allow; and (2) that outside the Capitol nobody much cares. But surely the cause is worth the try.


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