Local Government A Hatchery For The Legislature

In the Capitol, new perspectives on familiar issues

By Alex Matthews and John Howard

Special Report by Capitol Weekly

Well over half of California’s 120 state legislators come from local government – the 450-plus city councils, the 58 boards of supervisors, the 1,100 school districts and the other local bodies that do the heavy lifting of day-to-day governance.

But once they get to Sacramento, the perspective changes. And if blaming Sacramento is common at the local level, who do they blame once they get to the Capitol? And how does that play out if they want to return to local government when term limits force them out of Sacramento? 

What’s the difference between serving as a local elected official and serving as a state elected official?

“I think the biggest frustration is that we’re used to having the city council, having a public hearing, being able to debate the issue, to change course at a meeting as far as something’s presented to us,” said Assembly Member Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, who served on the Escondido City Council. “We might say, ‘Okay, this is great, but it would be better if we did this to it or we added this or we took this out.’ Whereas in state government, unless you’re on the committee that saw that bill before it gets to the floor, once it hits the floor you can’t change it. And you’re having to vote on something that could be tweaked to be better and you can’t,” she said.

“On the city council we didn’t have a staff at all, so for 14 years I would schedule all my meetings, do all that type of outreach and work myself and calendar and everything,” Waldron added. “I guess there’s a difference between people who’ve served in local government and people who haven’t; at least I’ve heard that from my staff. Folks who have been in local government are kind of familiar with how it works, how you have to study issues. I learned a lot in my 14 years. Some of the key things were that you really have to be able to listen to people. It sounds like a basic thing, but I know so many people who just don’t listen.”

School boards can be even more intense than city councils, in part because of the direct, impassioned discussions between board members and parents, board members and teachers, the board and the state, and even board members with each other. 

“To blame the budget and program cuts the district has been forced to make on any one individual is intellectually dishonest. The real blame and focus for the budget cuts should be on the tens of millions of dollars of state funding reductions that our district has suffered the past five years,” Jim Lynett, a former president and executive director of Paso Robles Public Educators, wrote his board during heated budget negotiations earlier this year. His comments, particularly as they relate to state funding cuts, have been echoed across the state at hundreds of districts.

When it comes to school boards, someone always seems to be demanding, threatening or shouting – or all three.

Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, who served seven years on his local school board, said the board was “always on the front lines of how education policy affects kids and their families, so there would always be a direct cause and effect relationship. I would have parents yelling at me for budget cuts and the impact of their child’s class size. I would have teachers literally crying on my shoulder after receiving a layoff notice.

“Sure, I think one of the reasons why I ran for the State Assembly was because I was frustrated with a lot of what was happening in Sacramento,” he added.

The dollar impact of decisions made in the Capitol is exponentially greater than those at the local level, even in the largest cities or counties. For the 2013-14 fiscal year that began July 1, the state will spend an estimated $138 billion, a figure that includes General Fund money derived from sales, income  and corporation taxes, as well as money – perhaps $42 billion – to cover borrowings and special funds. The figure does not include another $87 billion in federal pass-through money.

The population numbers usually are different, too: Each Assembly Member represents about 465,000 people, far more than most – but not all – school board members across the state. 

“There are several big differences, and one is the much larger constituency that I represent,” Muratsuchi said. “Representing over 400,000 people from communities that cover a larger span of the socioeconomic spectrum — that certainly presents interesting challenges where I have to represent a much more diverse group of communities.”

For mayors, finding compromises in the local political wars seems to provide a useful training to dealing with balky colleagues in the Capitol. For Assemblymember Jim Patterson, a Republican and former mayor of Fresno, the best training for Sacramento wasn’t local government, but private business.

“My experience in the last 30 years in business — I’ve owned and operated radio stations — I really think that is a much more significant learning arena with respect to what does the government do to us in the name of doing something for us, and I think that informs me more than my history as the mayor and more than my present responsibility in the Legislature,” he said.

Some who have considered a political career have decided against it, at least in part because a business executive can issue orders to get things done. A politician has to wheedle and cajole not only fellow lawmakers but a recalcitrant bureaucracy. 

“I don’t think local government or state government exists to make it easier for the bureaucracies to command and control,” Patterson said. “That’s how I try to resolve the tension between being a local representative in the Legislature and having a responsibility as one of 80 who will in one way or another make decisions that will affect real live people every day in their lives.”

 

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