|Fifty-eight years ago, the Legislature,
unwilling to adopt another state budget based solely on finance reports
from the governor's office, set up its own fiscal research arm to run the
The Legislative Analyst's Office, first in the nation, caught on as a valued resource. It won respect as an unbiased voice in the annual budget debates, based on staff analyses of state spending and estimates of future revenues. At the head of the office was the Legislative Analyst, whose style defined the office, and was someone known in and around government as a seasoned financial expert by the lawmakers who hired him--and, historically, it was always a him.
So in 1986, as the two-house selection committee began hearings to choose California's fourth Legislative Analyst, the 37-year-old candidate who showed up seven months pregnant hardly fit the mold.
But after doubters among the panel's senators finally yielded to her champions in the Assembly, Elizabeth G. Hill got the job. In the end, noted then Assemblyman, now state Senator John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) Hill's spotless, eight-year record as a program analyst in the Legislative Analyst's Office answered any questions legislators might have had about her willingness to commit to the job.
Now, more than 12 years later, Liz Hill is still the Legislative Analyst and still regarded highly. Her performance is widely rated as good or better than her predecessors. whether the office's main task be analyzing the state budget or critiquing the performance of a single state agency.
"I've always felt the [Legislative Analyst's Office] is a unique part of government," said Hill recently, speaking from experience. She has worked at the office for 23 years and has never worked permanently anywhere else. Seated in her 10th floor, downtown office, filled with the plaques and mementos of a longtime occupant, Hill told an interviewer "The Legislature has given us wide latitude to call it as we see it and be a voice of information and analysis. I think we've more than paid for ourselves."
In conversation, Hill is courteous, often breaks into a wide smile during light moments and mostly detours around the jargon of her trade to speak plainly to the press and public.
In many respects, she comes across as the perfect fit in the role of neutral adviser. Major features of both her work and home life seem to coexist in a yin-yang state of striking harmony.
A Balanced Analyst
She works for Republicans; she works for Democrats She works for the Senate, which pays half of her office's $4.6 million annual budget, and for the Assembly, which pays the other half. She is the mother of a daughter, 12, and a son, 17. She is an employee of the state, as is her husband, Larry Hill, who heads a student employment service at California State University, Sacramento. They met and married in college, then took fellowships to study in Sweden, together. When Stanford plays Cal, she roots for both because she attended both, earning her undergraduate degree in biology from the former, her master's degree in public policy at the latter.
Add to that her personal non-confrontational style, and Hill is seen as a veritable soul of fairness and balance as she goes about analyzing data, dispensing advice and issuing the LAO's carefully researched reports that land regularly on the desks of state officials and others.
Cracked one Capitol reporter unable to find fault with Hill, "She's the budget nun."
Vasconcellos, who along with then Assemblywoman, now Congresswoman Maxine Waters, (D-Los Angeles) fought resistance from the Senate side of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee when Hill was up for appointment back in 1986, said Hill has surpassed his expectations.
"She's a star, a superstar," Vasconcellos said. "She is bright, thoughtful and is totally trustworthy on all matters fiscal. She absolutely lives that job."
Lest she seem the franchised property of liberals like Vasconcellos and Waters, Hill also earns respect from Republicans. One illustration: Her office remained unscathed during the 1995-96 period when the GOP controlled the Assembly and along with it, half of the LAO's operating budget.
Former Assembly GOP leader Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) said he has found her to be uniformly unbiased "and in this place, that's a wonder." One of the crime bills being carried by Pacheco, a former prosecutor, was crafted on ideas that came out of Hill's office, he said.
Striking a rare note of discord, former Governor Pete Wilson became "somewhat annoyed" with the way Hill entered the debate three years ago on welfare reform, said Wilson's spokesman, Sean Walsh. While Wilson was governor, "she overreached by coming up with her own welfare program," Walsh said. Hill acknowledged laying out alternative ways, based on LAO studies, for the state to comply with 1996 federal welfare reform laws, but she hardly felt she was an intruder.
"While the Legislature didn't adopt our proposal in total, and we didn't expect that they would, I think that we helped change the debate in a number of significant ways," Hill said.
Word of Wilson's annoyance, she said, "didn't reach me." Whatever their differences, Walsh said Wilson "respected her, and more importantly Craig Brown respected her" for her skills at analyzing the budget. Brown, Wilson's director of finance, would defend Hill when Wilson became peeved at her. Walsh said.
Republican state Senator Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) asked if Republicans suspect Hill of bias, said he does not. But he said it may seem she is closer to Democrats simply because, until now, the budgets she critiqued were those of Republican governors during the 12 straight years that she has conducted the exercise.
With Democrat Gray Davis as governor, "now well see" if she goes lighter on him than on his Republican predecessors, Brulte said. So far, no such trend is apparent, he said. Hill has already declared the Davis administration's revenue estimates for the coming year $360 million too low.
More provocatively, as with her welfare plan that ticked off Wilson, she has parted company with Davis over education reform, the centerpiece of his administration. ln the analyst office's own master plan for improving K- 12 conditions, Hill declares that local school authorities are best suited to decide how to spend available funds, whereas under the Davis plan, school funding tends to get "earmarked" by category in Sacramento.
In her understated way, Hill told the California Journal: "Our view would be that the local school districts need more discretionary funding so that they can meet the local needs of their community."
Davis' press secretary, Michael Bustamante, said there is plenty of local control in the governor's proposals, but that for Hill to state otherwise is of no particular concern to Davis.
"They're pretty much in sync" on most issues, Bustamante said, "After all, he's a moderate-moderate governor and she's sort of a moderate-conservative legislative analyst."
Serving 120 Bosses
In a way, being anything but tolerant of Hill's activities would be a waste of a politician's energy, or time taken away. say, from fund-raising. Why fight her? She wields no direct power. As the Legislative Analyst, she does just that: she analyzes problems and recommends solutions and constantly defers judgment to the Legislature, which she calls "my 120 bosses."
But thats not to say she is without influence. Though only recommendations, Hill's reports--with their charts, graphs and unembellished prose--not only stimulate debate; sometimes they bear fruit.
As explained by Hill, in January, Davis's proposed budget contained no funds to address the dilapidated condition of California's state parks. The LAO did a "big write-up," she said, on the need for repairs. When Davis revised his spending plans in May, it contained $157 million for that purpose.
"I like to think we helped shed some light on that particular issue," Hill said, adding that the LAO has examined other state agencies for similar deficiencies, together carrying an $80 billion price tag to put things right. Hill has recommended attacking the problem comprehensively, with interested parties sitting at the same table, rather than different agencies maneuvering in isolation to get the Legislature's ear as they bid for funds.
An important function of the Legislative Analyst's Office on her watch, she said, is to take on challenges that cross agency lines. She said the office was able, for example, to throw new light on teen pregnancy problems by rounding up and analyzing data from different state departments.
Those endeavors may seem to pale compared to the battles against liquor-license corruption and organized crime waged by one of Hill's predecessors, the legendary A. Alan Post, who retired in 1977 after serving in the position for 28 years.
"We were the warp and woof of government" in those days, said Post, who is still active as a board member of the Public Policy Institute of California. But he observed that since his time the role of the LAO has changed, forced by the passage of Proposition 140 in 1990 to stop scrutinizing the Legislature's money bills. Besides limiting term limits of state officeholders, the measure wiped out 60 percent of the Legislative Analyst's Office budget.
Doing More with Less
Hill, said Post, maintained the LAO's quality through that crisis. "She's first rate," he notes.
Because of Proposition 140, said Hill, her staff nose-dived from 105 to about 50. At the same time, while the office no longer analyzed bills, work picked up in another department: helping to educate the flood of new legislators arriving in Sacramento in recent years to replace those being termed out by Proposition 140. The office works harder, Hill said, but the product hasn't suffered.
Perhaps the most closely watched of Hill's tasks are her revenue estimates. The news media take notice when the LAO numbers invariably contradict the governor's projections. The legislative budget writers accept or reject her findings, leading to debates on how to set spending limits.
This year, for example, the Assembly Budget Committee adopted Davis' estimate, which was lower than Hill's by $360 million, while the Senate panel went with the LAO figure.
So which side has been closest to the mark when the actual revenue amounts become known around October each year?
An exact scorecard is hard to come by. Hill's assessment is that "we've been able to be in the right direction more than the wrong direction. We feel very good about it."
There is not much about her $106,000 a year job that Hill does not feel good about, apparently, including relative serenity within the LAO staff. Those familiar with the analyst's office routine say Hill, who reads and edits every report the office produces, manages at a standard that does not tolerate sloppy work. At the same time, "she is not authoritative or dictatorial," said one source. "She's the opposite of a tyrant without being a pushover."
Hill notes her staff is a good mix of senior people who have made careers
at the LAO and others who stay awhile and leave, often recruited to work
directly on legislators' staffs. But there is no sign that Hill is open
to being wooed away. "I've always loved working here and I've learned
something new every day."
Reprinted with permission of the California Journal.
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