Walk into the office of any California journalist, interest-group lobbyist or agency staffer who pays close attention to state policy issues, and you're bound to find on the bookshelf a few reports that look unusually ill-treated--their corners dog-eared, their margins filled with notes, their pages warped by hard study. Inevitably, all will turn out to have been issued by a single office: the legislative analyst's.
In the decades since it was established in 1941, California's Legislative Analyst's Office has become the standard-setter for legislative research outfits nationwide and one of the few voices commenting on public policy that is universally trusted in Sacramento--a force for calm, reason and getting the facts straight. "If you say, `The Legislative Analyst says such and such, or this bill will cost this much,' there aren't many people who will come back and say, `So what do they know?'" says Peter Schrag, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.
That this is as true today as it was a decade ago is a remarkable achievement. When Elizabeth Hill took over in 1986, becoming the fourth person to hold the position of legislative analyst, the LAO had more than 100 staff members. It could explore the fiscal impact of every bill that might have one, issue reports on any subject legislators wanted studied in detail, and act as an analytical counterweight to the state's immense executive branch. But in 1990, California voters passed Proposition 140, which not only imposed lifetime term limits on legislators (a provision that has since been thrown out by a federal court) but slashed legislative funding.
The LAO lost 60 percent of its staff, and it had to retrench. "We decided that our primary objective as we went through downsizing was to maintain quality," Hill says. "We wanted to do very well whatever we did." Instead of issuing 3,300 analyses a year of fiscal bills, the office does fewer than 100 now. Its analysts carry twice the budget workload that they once did, and must set priorities far more carefully.
Yet it would be hard to argue that Hill and her office have been fundamentally diminished by the cutbacks. In part, this is a simple function of the thoroughness of their analyses. From the state budget to prisons to the impact of reducing the size of school classes to the criminal justice system as a whole--there are editorial writers all over the state who still have copies of the LAO's four-year-old analysis of crime in California sitting on their shelves--the LAO's reports continue to undergird the policy community's understanding of any given issue.
Even more important, Hill has made her office a force by making sure that it stays on top of issues the state ought to be grappling with. The LAO was first out of the gate this year with a framework for welfare reform that both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature wound up using as they pieced their proposals together, and it has over the years consistently pushed for consideration of how the state and counties ought to be splitting their responsibilities--an issue that has been roundly ignored by legislators but that has, nonetheless, become part of an ongoing dialogue within state policy circles. With the LAO's yearly publication, "Perspectives and Issues," Hill has also made it possible for relatively neophyte, term-limited legislators to get a quick grasp of the major challenges facing them each year.
"Even in the most difficult of times," says Phil Isenberg, a former state assemblyman, "she's managed to figure a way to wiggle through and by the political trench warfare and put issues, comments, critiques and research in front of policy makers. I think that's quite remarkable."
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Glen Korengold