California Assembly Seal

Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, Staff Writer
Created: 12/18/2009 04:10:11 PM PST

SACRAMENTO – The day Assemblyman Curt Hagman was sworn into office last year was bittersweet.

“It was a very short honeymoon,” Hagman said. “That afternoon they called us into the chambers and told us the deficit is not $20 billion, it’s $42 billion.”

Hagman, R-Chino Hills, was among 28 freshmen legislators – 17 Democrats and 11 Republicans – who had to learn on their feet and, almost immediately upon taking office, dole out steep cuts to public schools, social services and health programs – something most of them did not aspire to do when they threw their hats in the ring.

But although it looks like 2010 will bring more of the same, veteran lawmakers as well as newbies are hopeful that the current chaos will bring an opportunity for a long-term change.

Marble tiles, some in shape of Golden Poppies, pave the decadent hallways of the state Capitol. Portraits of former governors line the walls leading to the heart of the building – the 128-foot tall Rotunda. Around every corner are bits and pieces of history of a state that more than 38 million people call home.

“I would walk back there and look around and I couldn’t believe I’m part of that,” said Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Ontario, another freshman legislator.

“But the reality really sets in after you are sworn in. The job is very frustrating, and, for me, it really becomes a public service. There is no glamour left in this.”

A former 9-1-1 dispatcher, she connected with “everyday, hard-working people, most of them who live from paycheck to paycheck.”

But on the eve of the last floor session of the year, the Legislature’s approval rating stood at just 13 percent, according to a Field Poll.

“This year was a rollercoaster,” she said. “We were the messengers of bad news, of decisions made long before we got into the office.”

Hagman agreed.

“The pure process gets frustrating,” he said. “I learned that there is always a rule to overturn the rule.”

On one occasion, Hagman was handed a corrections bill at 6:30 p.m., and had to vote on it at 9 a.m.

“It had 349 pages, how were you supposed to read it in one night?” he said. “We get very frustrated because we don’t know what’s in these bills. If you are not in the negotiating process it’s really hard.”

Despite the challenges, Torres and Hagman said they worked on bringing positive change to their constituents, while learning the lessons in the art of politics along the way.

One of the accomplishments that Torres prides herself on was securing an exemption from furloughs for 9-1-1 dispatchers.

“The governor gave exemptions to public safety, but he didn’t realize that you have to have someone answer that call for safety,” she said. “It was costing the state more money and putting the state’s residents at risk.”

Torres also authored Assembly Bill 576 that gives local governments, which are victims of graffiti, the ability to charge the perpetrators with the cost of graffiti clean up.

Hagman had six bills signed into a law this year, some of which he co-authored with other legislators. Among others, Hagman secured a waiver of out-of-state teacher credential fees for spouses of military personnel.

His Assembly Bill 430 adds an additional member representing the Chino Valley Independent Fire District on the citizens advisory committee responsible for the state correctional institutions in Chino.

But passing a bill does not always mean success, especially if it is authored by the opposing party – such as the corrections bill. Hagman said he convinced three or four Democrats to change their mind and the bill was killed.

“Sometimes a victory is when nothing happens at all,” he said.

Hagman also attempted to help out Chino Valley Unified School District, which is facing a $7.5 million penalty for falling short of instructional minutes last year at two schools.

“I’m still working on it,” he said, noting that being in the minority party is difficult. “Sometimes it’s just about if you have a `R’ behind your name.”

And that’s when Hagman learned a lesson in fine art of negotiation.

“I was very angry, perhaps too emotionally involved, yelled at too many people,” he said. “Relationships are very important, you need to form alliances before you present a bill.”

During the battle over the state budget, Torres faced similar frustrations.

“Some votes, in my opinion, had to be bought or traded for,” she said. “You had a choice of either letting the state go over the cliff or let this knucklehead get his way. We need more Californians working for all of the California.”

Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who will will leave the Legislature next year due to term limits, understands the pitfalls of the first year in office.

“There is a learning curve,” Emmerson said. “You gain expertise and understanding, then you leave, and someone else starts from the beginning.”

If all goes well, Torres and Hagman have five more years to make their mark.

And unless the economy takes an unprecedented turn for the better, the coming years will be as tough, if not tougher, than their first year.

California is facing a $20 billion budget gap over the next year and a half – a $6.3 billion projected deficit for 2009-10 and a $14.4 billion gap between projected revenues and spending in 2010-11.

“There are no more places where we can take, borrow or steal from,” Hagman said.

Next year, Torres wants to focus on maximizing all federal resources available to state residents.

“We are leaving a lot of federal money on the table by not assisting veterans and by imposing regulations that keep needy people from receiving food stamps,” she said. “We are missing out on millions of dollars that could be coming to California to help people in need and to stimulate our economy.”

In order to make sure the state is running more efficiently, Torres wants the Legislature to have better oversight over state departments’ budgets.

“There is a tremendous amount of waste that occurs as a result of vastly inefficient contracting and procurement practices by state departments,” she said. “At a time when teachers are losing their jobs and domestic violence shelters are being shut down, we can’t let waste rob much needed services from the people who need them most.”

Emmerson and Hagman agreed.

Specifically, the administration in the education department should be consolidated and spending based on a level pay plan to compensate for deficit years, Emerson said.

“It’s a same concept as the electrical bill, so we don’t have to look at all these pink slips,” he said. “There are four levels of bureaucracy, we need to streamline that whole operation and put the money back into the classrooms.”

Currently, education is funded through the Proposition 98 that requires the state to spend 40 percent of the general fund on schools. Such practice creates “sharp dips in revenue during the bad years,” Emmerson said.

The lawmakers also agreed that, during previous years, decisions were made with “short-term type mentality,” and that long-term solutions involving job creation are what state needs the most.

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