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State Initiative Sends Hundreds of Political Insiders Looking for New Jobs

April 8, 1991

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Doug Widtfeldt spent seven years as a legislative aide, learning the ins and outs of politics. Now he’s had perhaps his hardest lesson in political ″outs.″

He lost his job to Proposition 140, a measure passed by California voters in November that ordered the Legislature to reduce its $177 million budget by 35 percent.

Proposition 140 also limits members of California’s Assembly to three two- year terms and its state senators and most other elected officials to two four-year terms. Some legislators could lose their jobs by the end of 1996.

In the meantime, the budget cuts due by July 1 have resulted in the adoption of a bill limiting the number of bills senators may introduce and in the departure of more than 600 legislative aides.

The aides - about 25 percent of the legislative staff - have taken added retirement or severance benefits to leave early rather than risk being laid off in July.

″I definitely agonized over the decision,″ said Widtfeldt, a former staff aide to the Assembly Insurance Committee who is now a lobbyist

″It was just that so many talented people that I worked with over the years were leaving,″ he said. ″And I didn’t like the possibility the workload would have increased dramatically and I would have been looking at a pay cut.″

Gretchen Dittrich, a legislative secretary for Sen. Robert Presley, also left voluntarily. She is looking for a job and hoping to return to college.

″It’s not easy to start over,″ she said. ″The competition is stiff but I’m just going to remain optimistic and think ... good things are going to come from it.″

Despite the 600 resignations, legislative officials say they may have to lay off as many as 150 aides on July 1 to complete the spending cuts.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit challenging the initiative, but there’s not much chance of a ruling before July 1.

Proposition 140 was placed on the ballot by a voter petition drive and passed with about 52 percent of the vote. Most legislators vigorously opposed it, arguing the budget cuts would limit their ability to serve constituents.

Aides say the 600 staff departures have resulted in procedural foul-ups, equipment problems and a drop in morale.

Cliff Berg, the Senate’s chief executive officer, said the cuts threaten the Legislature’s role as a watchdog over the governor. ″Our ability to keep qualified experts to do that function has been seriously reduced,″ he said.

Lewis Uhler, who co-wrote Proposition 140, said the Legislature will survive.

″Many state legislators, even in large states, may have one assistant and a pool of secretaries. This legislature is acting like the Congress of the United States,″ said Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee.

The staff reductions forced state senators to do something many had opposed for years: adopt a limit on the number of new laws they could consider.

The rule allows senators to introduce no more than 65 bills apiece in a two-year session, unless they get a waiver from the Rules Committee. The Assembly is considering limiting bill introductions to 40 per two-year session.

Bill introductions, which totaled 7,200 during the 1989-90 session, are down 27 percent in the Senate and 12 percent in the Assembly so far this year.

Sen. Gary Hart, who sponsored the bill limitation rule, said it has been good for the Legislature despite complaints from some lawmakers that it limits their ability to get things done.

″I think an awful lot of this bill introduction is duplicative,″ Hart said. ″People realize the bill’s not going to go anywhere but they just want to wave the flag back home.″

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