As legislators prepared to return to the Capitol on Monday, lawmakers said they’ll do their best to be productive despite major political distractions, including expected contests for the top jobs in both the Senate and Assembly.

Education is one area in which lawmakers will have to deliver, they said, especially in light of the numerous education ballot measures being proposed for the 1998 ballot, including separate plans sponsored by Gov. Pete Wilson and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“There will be something accomplished in education because the body politic will take matters into its own hands if there isn’t,” said Sen. Quentin Kopp, I-San Francisco.

Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, who unveiled a package of education proposals last Monday with state Sen. Jack O’Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, said “the absolute priority of this Legislature is going to be education.

“All the polls put education over anything else,” Villaraigosa said. “It transcends class and race and the whole deal. It’s the Number One issue for everybody.”

Legislators will have plenty of competition as they push to deal with problems plaguing public schools.

Wilson, who is weighing a run for the presidency after he leaves the governorship in January 1999, announced Dec. 11 that he would sponsor an education ballot initiative that would vest more power in principals and parents to manage schools, evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores, establish a state “chief inspector” of public schools to monitor schools’ progress, and make permanent his class-size reduction program in the early grades.

Even as he gathers signatures to put his measure on the ballot, Wilson said he plans to ask the Legislature to consider putting his proposals into law. But the Republican governor’s plan is likely to receive a tepid response from the Democrats who control both houses, predicted Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante.

Feinstein, a potential Democratic candidate for governor, jumped into the education debate on Christmas Eve, filing a proposed initiative to raise the cigarette tax a dollar a pack to pay for a longer school year, fourth-grade class-size reduction, mandatory student testing and an end to the “social promotion” of students who don’t meet basic standards.

Legislative Democrats said they will present a long list of their own proposals. They will renew efforts to reach a deal that could ease school overcrowding by allowing school bonds to be passed with a majority rather than a two-thirds vote. In return for Republican support, Democrats likely will have to come up with a way to limit the fees now imposed on new home construction to finance schools.

Repeated attempts to come up with a solution to the space crunch in public schools have failed. Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, predicted that “it’s going to be a big fight” this year as well.

Like Feinstein’s ballot proposal, Villaraigosa’s plan calls for expanding class-size reduction to the fourth grade and lengthening the school year by seven days. In addition, Villaraigosa and O’Connell want to raise the beginning teacher salary to $35,000 and limit the size of each required math and English course in high school to no more than 20 students.

Sen. Leroy Greene, the veteran Carmichael Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, scheduled a Monday news conference in the Capitol to discuss a long list of education issues.

“Since every candidate for governor has declared his or her intention to ‘reform’ the public schools as the centerpiece of their platforms, I thought I might offer my opinions,” Greene said in a statement.

Most legislative leaders conceded, however, that it is too late for Democrats to stop the bilingual education ballot initiative sponsored by software executive Ron Unz. The measure — which has garnered strong voter support — would virtually eliminate native language instruction for California schoolchildren who can’t speak English.

Assembly Democrats failed to bring a piece of bipartisan legislation to the floor for a vote last year, even though Republicans urged them to do so.

“That battle is already lost,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento.

In addition to education, HMO reform is likely to re-emerge this year as a major theme, legislative leaders predicted. The Legislature passed numerous bills on the topic last year, nearly all of which were vetoed by Wilson.

Whether or not legislators can focus on education or other policy issues in a climate of political turmoil remains to be seen.

A Dec. 19 federal appeals court ruling makes it virtually certain that term limits will remain in place for the 1998 elections, meaning the leaders of both the Assembly and Senate must step down.

The loss is expected to be particularly acute in the Senate, which has tried to present itself as a more deliberative and stable body than the Assembly in the fast-changing era of term limits.

Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, D-Hayward, who has been deeply involved in both legislative politics and policy, is considered the most powerful and influential of all the members of the Legislature.

The reality that Lockyer and Bustamante will soon be gone has touched off a scramble among potential successors to the leadership posts. Members also have begun debating precisely when the leaders should give up their jobs.

Term limits also have prompted numerous other legislators to seek higher office. In some instances, Assembly members from the same party will be running against one another in primary elections for Senate seats.

“I think there’s room for mischief,” said Ortiz, who is running for the Senate. “I think we’re going to waste a lot of time wondering who is going to do what.”

Despite the inevitable political machinations, several Senate and Assembly members said they think the Legislature stands a good chance of being productive in the second half of the 1997-98 legislative session.

Assembly Republican leader Bill Leonard of Upland cited major legislative compromises hammered out last year, including welfare reform, a tax-cut package and an agreement for mandatory testing of public school students.

“We’re hoping some of the spirit of that continues, and we’re hoping to take advantage of it if it does,” Leonard said.

“We had a good year last year,” echoed Bustamante. “I think voters are looking for an encore. They don’t want this to be a one-year blip on a screen.”

Some lawmakers suggested the political campaigns might actually prompt the Legislature to do more than usual.

“I think campaign years are sometimes cited as a reason for people doing nothing as they posture for re-election,” said Sen. Patrick Johnston, D-Stockton. “But other times they are cited as a spur to goad legislators into proving to the voters that they ought to be returned to office. I think it is too early to tell.”

Johnston, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, confirmed that he is one of a number of senators campaigning to succeed Lockyer in the Senate’s top job. “I’ve chaired major policy committees in both the Assembly and Senate. And I value consensus and stability in both policy and politics. I think a number of senators share that value,” said Johnston, who himself faces term limits in 2000.

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