Anthony York’s report from Sacramento

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Usually, in state politics, you hear about things when they happen but you get very little follow-up a few years later. You simply never know how things finally work out. Term limits are one of those things that many of us supported yet, does anyone know if the results have been good, bad or just indifferent? This week we’ve reprinted Anthony York’s column from our Sacramento Newsletter Political Pulse. It comes under the heading, “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.” -Arnold G. York

The plague of staff turnover

Nearly 15 years ago, California voters took some of their anger and distrust of Sacramento power barons and approved Prop. 140, which instituted legislative term limits. As term limits have taken hold, those who do business in Sacramento complain about increased partisanship, increased ambition and a decline in the fundamental understanding of how government works.

That critique is often levied against the ever-changing batch of new members that flood Sacramento at the end of every even-numbered year. But legislative term limits and a series of other factors have led to massive turnovers in Capitol staff that may, in the end, have more of an impact on the nuts and bolts work the government does than the turnover of members themselves.

“Generically, you have the problem of unintended consequences of term limits,” says one Democratic Capitol veteran. “You have people who are in a hurry. That culture transmits to staff. So staff is in a hurry to advance their own careers.”

A variety of pressures have led to a brain drain among legislative staffers, particularly in the Assembly. The primary culprit, of course, is term limits. According to the Assembly Rules Committee, staff turnover was 22.3 percent annually in the late 1980s. In the years since term limits kicked in, the average annual turnover is 36.4 percent. Staff turnover hit an all-time high in 1996, the first year term limits took effect, when 42.2 percent of all Assembly staff took other jobs.

There has also been a lot of partisan turnover over the last decade. When Republican Curt Pringle took over as Assembly speaker after years of uninterrupted Democratic rule, many Democratic staffers were either let go or decided to move on. The GOP takeover of the Assembly came just as the first wave of term limits was beginning to kick in.

When Capitol fixtures like Willie Brown left the Capitol, many of the people who worked for him left as well. But Prop. 140 also limited the budgets of the two houses, and reduced opportunities for pay increases in the Capitol. That helped drive some people away, especially as they faced more instability and less job security in the new, term limits era.

Democrats retook control of the Assembly in 1996, but two years later, Gov. Davis became the first Democrat elected to the state’s top job in 16 years. That contributed to another siphoning of senior staffers, just as the new Schwarzenegger administration has taken some of the most experienced Republican staffers.

Davis’ election came as California’s economy was booming. While staffers could make a comfortable living working inside the building, the promise of better money in the private sector lured many away.

According to the Assembly Rules Committee, during the boom years of the late 1990s, there was an annual turnover of more than 33 percent. One in every three Assembly staffers either took a job in the Senate, the administration, or left the building altogether. That number has slowed some, but the average tenure of an Assembly staffer is still less than two years.

The explosive rise in lobbying and campaign money has also taken people away from the Capitol. Some of the most prominent Democratic political consultants in the state have left the Speakers’ office to start their own lucrative campaign operations.

The relative lack of experience among legislators has made institutional knowledge more valuable than ever. Access and knowledge now fetch premium prices on the open market.

For evidence of these continuing pressures, and how they impact key pieces of legislation, one need look no further than the recent workers’ compensation bill. On the Assembly side, the most knowledgeable staffer on the issue was Michael Mattoch, the chief consultant for the Assembly Insurance Committee. But earlier this year, Mattoch left the committee to start his own lobbying firm. The American Insurance Association and the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies were the firm’s first clients.

Until now, the most profound effects of staff turnover have been felt in the Assembly. But California has not yet felt the full effect of term limits. And when the last bastion of pre-Prop. 140 lawmakers are termed out of the Senate this year, Capitol insiders worry that dozens of staff members may leave with them.

In conversations with dozens of Assembly and Senate staffers, there are indications that when Senate President Pro Tem John Burton is termed out this year, there may be another massive migration of Democratic staffers. Many are contemplating leaving the Capitol altogether. Anecdotally, staffers say the degree of turnover may depend on the outcome of the race to succeed Burton as pro tem.

“There’s a lot of talk that if Perata is the pro tem, a lot of staff may stick around,” said one Democratic Senate staffer who said she hopes to stay on regardless of who the new leader is.

But the changing of the guard in the Senate may help the Assembly pick up some more experienced staffers. Baring the unforeseen, Speaker Fabian Nuñez has four good years left to serve as speaker, and his Republican counterpart, Kevin McCarthy, also has more than two full terms remaining.

The Assembly is in a position now to offer the stability that the Senate has been able to offer for the last six years. Some Senate staffers, like Burton aide Bob Giroux, are already planning to head back over to the Assembly. Others are sure to follow.

Talking to those who work in the Capitol, it doesn’t take long to detect a level of fatigue and malaise. Some veterans (and in today’s Assembly, seven years of staff experience puts you in the top 5 percent in terms of seniority) complain that they are running on a virtual hamster wheel, and the deterioration of personal relationships has made the job less enjoyable.

“There’s not the camaraderie there was even five years ago,” said one Democratic Assembly staffer. “Republicans and Democratic staffers don’t get along as well as they used to, because there’s no chance to build up any trust. It’s hard to feel like you’re being fulfilled when you’ve been here nine or ten years and you’re telling new members and staff some of the basics.”

Assembly sources say there has been some discussion about how to address the turnover problem. One idea being floated is to keep committee staff in place, even though committee chairs shift at least every two years. Such a change could help restore some much needed expertise and institutional memory to a Capitol that seems to be bleeding knowledge.