LAO in retrospect: A conversation with Elizabeth Hill
Elizabeth Hill became the first woman to head the California Legislative Analyst’s Office in 1986 when she was eight months’ pregnant with her second child. For 22 years, she held one of the most important positions in state government — advising the 120-member Legislature during fractious times and sometimes clashing over policy recommendations in an increasingly partisan environment beset by the passage of term limits, deep budget cuts, and recession.
Through it all, she quietly maintained a reputation as a no-nonsense, nonpartisan, data-driven, objective analyst of legislation, the state budget, and a growing number of ballot initiatives. She testified in countless hearings, was peppered with questions from legislators, state agency heads — even governors — and was always open with the news media, always on the record.
Nonpartisanship has been a hallmark of the office since it was created in 1941.
Sometimes the disagreements would devolve into invective, but Hill never wavered from her even, fact-based analysis, acknowledging that her job sometimes made her unpopular. “It comes with the territory,” she once told a reporter. At one point, she managed this mammoth, sometimes thankless responsibility with a staff of only 43.
Yet restrictions on budget and staff did not limit her ability to shape public policy, and in 2015, because of her influence on the state’s political and public developments, she was asked by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, to be the subject of a detailed oral history (PDF)for the California State Archives.
Hill joined the LAO as a program analyst in 1976, following a steady climb from humble roots in the Central Valley city of Modesto, where she was born and raised. She earned degrees from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley; served as a Fulbright Scholar in Sweden; and had stints with several state and local agencies. Four years after she was appointed to the top job, voters passed Proposition 140, the term-limits initiative that also cut legislative budgets and slashed the analyst’s office by 60%.
“It had a seismic effect on the office,” said Dan Carson, a former San Diego Union-Tribune Capitol bureau reporter who left journalism and joined the analyst’s office in 1995 — and stayed for 17 years. “But we found ways to develop new roles that were in keeping with the resources we had. And Liz pushed us forward on computer technology.”
“Everyone in that office is dedicated to the ethic of nonpartisanship,” former Republican Assembly member Roger Niello of Fair Oaks said when Hill retired, “because Liz has developed it that way.”
Despite the cuts, Carson and others said, Hill was personally and deeply involved in day-to-day decisions, while emphasizing a collaborative approach. “Any significant fiscal issue — she personally read and edited it, as the last line of defense for us,” he said. “She was very cognizant. She didn’t phone it in.”
Her employer was the Legislature — all 120 members — and she was widely viewed on both sides of the aisle as even-handed, thoroughly prepared, and a straight shooter. “She’s a solid shot with absolute, impeccable integrity. Couldn’t be any better,” John Vasconcellos, a powerful Santa Clara Democrat in the state senate, told a reporter when Hill announced her retirement in 2008. (Vasconcellos died in 2014.)
“Everyone in that office is dedicated to the ethic of nonpartisanship,” former Republican Assembly member Roger Niello of Fair Oaks said when Hill retired, “because Liz has developed it that way.”
Echoing other legislators, Denise Ducheny, a Democratic senator from San Diego at the time, said Hill’s departure “will leave a huge hole.” During legislative ceremonies after she announced her retirement, the San Francisco Chronicle reported how “evidence of her legacy rippled through the standing ovations from both sides of the aisle.”
With characteristic humility, Hill says nonpartisanship has been a hallmark of the office since it was created in 1941. From its inception, the analyst maintains credibility through nonpartisanship, she said, “providing untainted advice that is objective,” giving lawmakers the tools to make decisions about programs and policy.
When Hill left government, she said she initially spent time “decompressing,” traveling with her husband, Larry, who retired as director of cooperative education at California State University, Sacramento. She also wanted to spend more time with their two children, Erik, 34, and Kristina, 29, and two grandchildren. Today, at 66, Hill continues to focus on public policy issues in retirement, mainly health care and higher education.
In a wide-ranging April 4 interview for the California Health Care Foundation at her home in Sacramento, Hill spoke with veteran Sacramento journalist Sigrid Bathen about her path to becoming one of the most trusted and sought-after public policy experts in the state, and about how solid policy analysis can influence future decisions. Her recall for complex details, dates, and names is precise, razor-sharp — a quality often lauded by legislators, governors, other public officials, and her own staff. And while her long career in public policy spanned a range of issues, health care — especially access for low-income Californians — remains a major focus.
Ed’s Note: This interview originally appeared here on the website of the California Health Care Foundation, which gave Capitol Weekly permission to republish it. Sigrid Bathen, a former newspaper reporter, teaches journalism at Sacramento State and is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Q: Your family has deep roots in the Central Valley, and you were born and raised in Modesto. Tell us about your early years.
A: My father was born there, and my mother moved there when she was three. Both my parents went to high school in Modesto, and I attended public schools. My father was a salesman with Leslie Salt Co., and my mom was an elementary school teacher. Stone was my maiden name. Our roots are still strong in the community. My mom is 90 now and still lives in Modesto. My father died about 20 years ago. My sister, Ann Falk, who worked in local government, lives in Turlock.
Q: You were active in debate in high school, and 4H, and were strong academically, attending Stanford University on a state scholarship. You also worked in university food services during the school year and summers in a tomato processing plant near Modesto. How did those vastly different cultural and academic experiences affect you?
A: I always knew that if I was going to attend college, I would need to get a scholarship. Luckily, a guidance counselor at my high school — we still had guidance counselors in those days — was a huge help to me, just to figure out how to navigate the waters when applying for college. I was a strong academic student, and had also been on the debate team. So I had a chance to actually visit a number of campuses throughout California for debate tournaments. One of them was Stanford, and I became very interested in that as a possibility. And UC Santa Cruz was just starting about the time I was graduating from high school, and I was quite intrigued by the cluster-college model. So those were the two places I applied, and fortunately, I got in to both.
Q: And then an opportunity to study in Sweden intervened, and that became a significant experience in your life.
A: Yes. After I was accepted at Stanford, I was also accepted into the American Field Service Program (AFS), which is based in New York City and matches the interests of accepted students with families around the world. And they felt that a family up in Umeå, Sweden, which is just shy of the Arctic Circle, was the best fit for me. . . . Stanford was really terrific about it. They said that while they couldn’t guarantee me a slot for the next year, they thought that it was a wonderful idea to participate [in AFS in Sweden] and to go — and, in effect, reapply. So that’s what I decided to do.
Q: Did you know any Swedish?
A: No. I had studied Latin and Spanish. Growing up in Modesto, we had gone up to the snow once, but I had never seen snow fall out of the sky. I really didn’t understand whole sentences for quite some time. But after three months, you know, I became more conversant. It was kind of comparable to a junior college-level education, which is a difference between the system in Europe and the American high school system.
Q: And you‘ve remained in touch with your Swedish family over the years?
A: It will be 50 years ago in 2018 that I went to live with them. And my children know my host sister’s children, and the next generation, our grandkids, are starting to know each other now that the world is a little smaller, with Skype and Facetime and the Internet.
Q: You remarked in the oral history that the families of some of your roommates at Stanford spent more on groceries in a week than your family did in a month. How did your different backgrounds and experiences affect your time there? How did you adjust?
A: I think the wonderful thing about growing up in California is that you’re influenced by all these different things. I had a really good public education. Then I had the opportunity to go to Sweden and learned a great deal about cultural differences, and had a different view of the United States from the outside looking in, which was really valuable. And I learned you could still have an incredible commonality with people even if your backgrounds were perhaps totally different. And I think it’s kind of driven by the Golden Rule, to be honest. Do unto others as I’d like them to do unto me, and that seemed to work out pretty well in terms of being professional and fair. At Stanford, I think that served me well. I was a bit unusual, being a scholarship student. I was very fortunate, and once the university admitted you, they sent you a strong message that they wanted you to succeed and would be helpful in seeing you through. . . . And again, I could learn from my colleagues there; I was fortunate that a new major had started when I was a freshman, called the Program in Human Biology, to try to look at folks by integrating biology and the behavioral sciences, which was actually an experimental program supported by the Ford Foundation — a nice tie to philanthropy. I just thought it was fascinating.
Q: You did food-service work at Stanford, where you held a job as a “hasher.”
A: That was what they called us in my day. I worked around 20 hours a week, and I later became the head of the hashing crew at our little part of Lagunita, which was the dorm complex where I lived. And then the human biology program had student advisors, and I was paid for that. And I worked in the summers, first at Contadina putting “eight great tomatoes in that itty-bitty can.” I also picked peaches and berries.
Q: You have said that experience gave you an appreciation for the challenges facing other workers at the Contadina plant.
A: Absolutely. The canning industry is seasonal by definition, depending on — in our case — peaches and tomatoes. And sometimes there are rains in the Central Valley in the summer. And when it rains, sometimes there are layoffs for a few days when the fruit isn’t harvested. I remember, very vividly, when we were laid off for a couple days, and I was walking behind some ladies as we left that evening, and they said, “Gee, I just don’t know how I’m going to make it without the couple days of income for that work.” And that struck me. I was earning money to be able to go to college. They were there just to make ends meet.
Q: Your major at Stanford was human biology, but you decided to focus on public policy, especially during your internship at the state Department of Transportation (now CalTrans).
A: The major at Stanford wasn’t a classic biology major, although a number of my colleagues in the major did go on to medical school and public health. Because it was a melding of biology and the behavioral sciences, there was a contingent of us who went into related areas like public policy, sociology, and psychology. It was fantastic. At first, I thought I would like to work in nutrition. And then I took my first chemistry-related course, and I realized, nope. . . . I can do nutrition, but not from the scientific point of view of a nutritionist.
Q: The program required an internship?
A: Yes, during the academic term. I became acquainted with Claire Dedrick, who later became secretary of resources under Jerry Brown during his first or second term. And I got very excited about public policy. I then had a chance to work with Assemblymember Clare Berryhill from the Modesto area who actually went to high school with my parents. I found I really enjoyed government. And the people of California had given me an opportunity to go to college with taxpayer dollars through the California Scholarship, supplemented by financial aid from the university. I was really interested in giving back through public service.
Q: After graduating from Stanford, you were accepted at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, where you earned a master’s degree, working during the summer at Caltrans. After grad school, you went directly to the analyst’s office?
A: First I spent a year in Sweden as a Fulbright Scholar studying their transportation systems. Interestingly enough, when the analyst’s office had an opening upon my return, I was hoping it would be in transportation, but there was nothing available. So I ended up in criminal justice as my policy area.
Q: This was a very different policy area from transportation. Could you discuss the interrelationships among the various areas of public policy analysis — how health care, for example, is impacted by education, social services, criminal justice issues, even transportation?
A: One advantage that we had at the analyst’s office, as a small office, is that I encouraged the staff that if they thought an issue they were looking into had implications for another policy area in the office, they were supposed to walk down the hall and talk to a colleague about what the interaction was and where they could potentially partner on a potential solution. We clearly have huge health care needs in state prisons that also have some implications for the Medi-Cal budget, substance abuse, mental health. The interrelationship of those policy issues was something I really tried to emphasize during my time as legislative analyst. That’s not to say it’s easy to break down those barriers. I’m well aware that it isn’t. But that cross-fertilization I think enabled us to make some important recommendations. In 1993, for example, we made a proposal called Making Government Make Sense, and that encompassed not only health but social services, criminal justice — a whole variety of policy issues. And we were concerned about uniformity in service, particularly in health issues, so that you wouldn’t have as much variation from county to county. And so again, that kind of cross-fertilization certainly came to bear in our proposals.
Q: You clearly have a strong preference for data-driven objective analysis, while maintaining the historically nonpartisan nature of the LAO. How did the presence or absence of data and objective analysis influence policy outcomes when you headed the office?
A: A good example is our work on welfare reform. In 1997, the state had to respond to the elimination of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children’s (AFDC) program at the federal level. And we had been, of course, following social-services and welfare-related issues, cash-grant and work-related programs for many, many years. A lot of evaluations had been done of these programs. So when it came time in 1997 to assist the legislature in crafting the state’s response to the new federal requirements, one of the things we did was to point to the evaluation literature. What worked? But we also had a sense that some of the data wasn’t crystal-clear and wasn’t a full-powered evaluation, and was, frankly, more anecdotal evidence as to what might work. And so what we did in coming together with a proposal for the legislature on welfare reform was exactly to that question. . . . We thought, “Here are some really important messages coming out of this anecdotal evidence that the legislature should consider.” So sometimes, not enough work has been done to come to a conclusive decision. But you give it your best judgment, and you be explicit as to what has been “proven,” and what is instead anecdotal. And so we did that with a good deal of success in our welfare reform proposal.
Q: Do you think data-driven, objective analysis is well utilized in state government generally?
A: Objective analysis is one of many things that policymakers have to take into consideration. I think sometimes its impact may not be clear in the immediate term but becomes clearer in the long term. As local Assembly member Phil Isenberg would say, “Information is power,” and to get your facts straight and know where the weaknesses are in the information — and also the strengths. That can have a very powerful effect on decisionmakers.
Q: It must have been difficult when public officials would balk at your analyses, or sometimes yell at you or make profane comments.
A: I think when you work in the policy environment, you have to understand that analysis is one of many factors, that politics is kind of a contact sport, that my chosen line of profession was making powerful people uncomfortable, oftentimes with objective analysis. And so there were clearly going to be times that officials were not pleased. But if they knew you could be a straight shooter, be objective, evenhanded, and appreciate that they were elected to make decisions, and as staff we were employed to be advisers, not decisionmakers, it worked out. And I think sometimes folks don’t understand that difference, between advice and decision.
Q: You have told the story about the time when Assembly member Maxine Waters said she planned to vote for a budget item you were analyzing, and she told you, “I want you guys to be as hard as nails on that proposal. I want it to be improved.” Did most members have that view of your work?
A: Members who had been around quite some time understood what a neutral third-party could do for them in the policy arena. I think in the early years of a term-limited legislature, some new members had a harder time understanding how they could use the resources of the office . . . to benefit their decisionmaking.
Q: You always had an unusually good relationship with the news media during your tenure — certainly not the norm in government. How did you handle media requests, interviews?
A: We were always of the view that we had so much in common with reporters — trying to explain how state government worked, what was happening. We wanted to be as transparent and open as possible about that, and had the view that all of our staff should talk on the record and not offer their own opinions. But we also thought that the individuals who were responsible for the analysis were usually the best people for the media to talk to because they had the most expertise. I mean, you could talk to me about education, but it would be far better to talk to our education expert. We had debated, “Gee, in this media world, should we have a public information officer?” But ultimately, we decided that the way we were doing it — trying to connect media folks with our experts and talking on the record — was really important.
Q: You’ve said that health care has always been an important interest of yours. How does health policy differ from other types of policy?
A: That’s a really good question. In the analyst’s office, we were dealing with a whole variety of issues, from mental health to substance abuse to developmental services, public health, and Medi-Cal. And Medi-Cal is far and away the largest health program in California. While I didn’t do a deep dive into health [policy] in the analyst’s office, I was responsible for the overall analyses of the health budget. I think health is unique in that, while there are other policy areas that have some similarities, in health particularly it’s a partnership between the state and federal government, particularly when it comes to Medi-Cal. . . . When I retired [in 2009], roughly 6.5 million Californians were served by Medi-Cal; now that number is over 13 million. So it’s changed significantly, and largely because of the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Q: In 2011, you decided to join the California Health Care Foundation board. What did you find appealing about that role?
A: It was right around the time that the Affordable Care Act was going in, and everybody has some health stories in their families. In my case, in the 1990s my mom had had fourth-stage fallopian tube cancer, a very rare cancer. And she, amazingly, pulled through. She was treated here in Sacramento at UC Davis — she’s 90 now. . . . And having dealt with health over the years, in all of its various permutations, I thought, “Gee, it would be really nice to do more of a deep dive.” Health affects everybody, and with the Affordable Care Act, hopefully I could be helpful to CHCF with my own state experience. I didn’t know that much about philanthropy, but CHCF was, I thought, really unique in that it was willing to work with government and find opportunities where it could be helpful to the government process, again with information, analysis, and data. And that was very intriguing to me . . . with many similarities to what we did in the analyst’s office. . . . I’ve found it incredibly interesting — great staff, great board of directors. And I think that the mission of CHCF is so important — to be sure that there is access to high-quality care for all Californians, with a particular focus on low-income individuals who often don’t have access, or the system isn’t working well for them.
Q: Have you found that your background in behavioral health, going back to your studies at Stanford in human biology, has been a factor in your work with the foundation?
A: We are really moving the foundation more into the behavioral health environment, which is a newer endeavor for us. But I think trying to see the whole person — both the physical and behavioral health ailments and the substance abuse issues that are also a part of behavioral health — that is very important, as is our continued emphasis on access to care, quality care.
Q: And end-of-life issues?
A: The foundation has done important work in that area. I’m a baby boomer, and knowing how many of us are coming, to be sure that high-quality care follows the patient’s wishes is really important. We also have a number of collaborations with other entities that are underway. We’re a fairly small foundation, and being able to collaborate with other partners to make a difference in people’s lives is really important.
Q: You utilized that collaborative philanthropic model to work with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center after your mother was successfully treated there.
A: I’ve had the opportunity as a CHCF board member to work with the Comprehensive Cancer Center at UC Davis to initiate a women’s cancer-care program. And I’m really pleased with how that’s been able to develop with a little seed money that I was able to direct their way as a director at CHCF. That happens to be where my mom got care, and I wanted to see if there were some things that we could do for other folks going forward. So it’s been an exciting time.
Q: As analyst, you emphasized the importance of field research to learn firsthand about the issues you were examining. In the oral history, you spoke of an early experience, a meeting in Los Angeles with a social worker and a client with a child in her lap trying to apply for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). And you were struck by the complexity of the paperwork, and the challenges faced by that caseworker and her client. What did you learn from that experience?
A: That intake experience gave me a profound appreciation for what eligibility workers were facing as they were trying to manage a caseload of several hundred people, to be sure they were meeting all the requirements of federal and state law, and the client who was juggling a one-year-old on her lap as she was trying to answer all the eligibility questions and be honest and factual, and she wasn’t trying to cheat the system. . . . Ultimately, what the state budget and public service are about is understanding people’s needs and how to provide services in the most cost-efficient and beneficial way. And so it really brought it home to our little world in the analyst’s office and in explaining to members of the legislature how programs actually work, what it takes to deliver services in a cost-effective way.
Q: You went through draconian budget cuts in the LAO during your tenure. How did you maintain the quality of the work following passage of Proposition 140 in 1990, when term limits were imposed in the legislature, and your budget was slashed by 60%?
A: It was a challenging time. I think each legislative analyst has been shaped by some unique event during their tenure. Mine was certainly the Proposition 140 experience. The standards for excellence certainly predated me, and they were among the things that attracted me to the office. So when we lost 60% of our staff, we basically had to figure out how could we maintain our excellence, how could we keep the analytical focus, and how can we keep producing things that were required by statute — largely our ballot work — as well as what the legislature expected us to do on the state budget.
Q: How did you manage priorities?
A: We went from 105 to 43 employees at one point, over a two-year period — at the same time the state was in an incredible recession. I approached the legislative leadership and said, “We can’t do the same amount with 60% fewer people,” and I recommended to them that we no longer do all the bill analyses. I just didn’t see a physical way the office could do that. We still operated on a special-request basis, but we would no longer produce 3,000 bill analyses a year.
Q: What about the budget analyses?
A: In previous years, we analyzed every single item of the budget. After Prop. 140, we made a decision each year about where we were going to concentrate our efforts, but that basically, we were going to concentrate our staff resources where most of the money was, and the overall revenue and expenditures of the state. In effect, we tripled all of the analytical staff’s budget assignments as a way to make up for the loss of staff. . . . I think it is a really good case in point of the dedication of my colleagues at the Legislative Analyst’s Office who remained when a very dark cloud was hanging over our heads — and still produced solid, professional work. I think it’s a real testament to public servants.
Q: You were the first woman to be named legislative analyst, in 1986, when you were eight months‘ pregnant with your second child, your daughter. How did you manage issues of work-life balance and the needs of families versus demanding careers?
A: You know, I think for all of us, the work-life balance is a constant struggle. I was very fortunate in that my husband was very supportive of me working at the analyst’s office and throwing my hat into becoming the analyst even though I was eight months’ pregnant at the time that I was appointed. He worked at CSU Sacramento most of that time, and other than May, our schedules were different enough that we could complement each other. But May was particularly trying, both for the academic and the budgetary calendar. Initially, we didn’t have any family residing in Sacramento, and so we had to rely on neighbors and friends to help with picking up children. When our children got sick, one of us would take off in the morning, and one would take off in the afternoon. Clearly, during my tenure in the office, overtime was a big component, year-in and year-out and also during tough budgetary times. The budget often wasn’t done in time for summer vacation, so that always affected things as well. So it was tough on my kids at times. But it was also my dream job, my kids were flexible, and with my husband’s support we made it work.
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