Legislature an easy target, but the criticism is misdirected

Legislature bashing has become California’s new official blood sport. From Governor Schwarzenegger’s “girlie men” comments at the 2004 Republican Convention to Democratic Treasurer Bill Lockyer’s October tongue-lashing lawmakers have been weathering a constant stream of criticism, some of it well-deserved. The result has been historic low approval ratings, according to the most recent Field Poll. It also has spawned a new initiative designed to slash their pay and make them part-time.

By design, the Legislature is a sitting duck for criticism. It is inherently slow (to protect against rash actions), complicated (constraining power by creating more obstacles than opportunities to pass laws), and representative (insuring citizens and interests all have a voice).  Two voter-approved initiatives pushed by the right –  term limits and the two-thirds-vote budget approval threshold – have made matters worse by handcuffing the Legislature’s ability to get things done.

But does this inaction merit returning California to a part-time Legislature and slashing lawmaker pay by at least 50 percent, as the new initiative proposes? What would California’s government and politics be like if it passes? Who would be the winners – and who (besides the Legislature) would be the losers?

The big winner would be the Governor. Freed from a pesky Legislature that often counters executive power and provides oversight, the Governor would drive the public policy agenda without accountability. Under the initiative, the Governor would also be able to call unlimited special sessions and dictate their terms, further weakening the legislative branch’s independence.

The state bureaucracy under the Governor’s control also would thrive without lawmakers around Sacramento to regularly call agencies on the carpet. There would be no time for hearings on agency regulations – the ones that allowed felons to become day-care workers, the lack of regulations for summer heat protection for farm workers, or sweetheart computer deals negotiated by the administration.

Also benefiting would be Sacramento’s special interests and their army of lobbyists. Under the initiative, lawmakers would serve just 90 days per year. Meanwhile, special interests would be working full-time. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who would have the upper hand on complex policy issues: amateur lawmakers or experienced professional lobbyists for insurance companies, utilities, banks, and unions.

Professional staff also would become more powerful. Term limits are already empowering some legislative staffers to be more knowledgeable about lawmaking than lawmakers themselves (see Sunday’s Los Angeles Times profile of Senate staffer Kip Lipper). This initiative would make matters worse, as it does nothing to reduce legislative staff. In fact, it might actually increase it. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Texas, with its part-time legislature, has hundreds more staffers than California.
The biggest loser, of course, would be the public.

Under the initiative, there would be little time for rank-and-file Californians and the press to weigh in on legislation. The California Constitution requires all bills to have a 30-day review after they’re printed. But under the initiative, the part-time Legislature would have only 30 days to convene in January, and then be called back in May for 60 days to conclude their business (including  holding hearings and passing a budget). That would mean thousands of bills would have to be considered in two months, causing a frenzy of rushed review of complex policy. That effectively would shut out public input, leaving only the special interests to do the sausage-making.

Rural and small town California also would take a hit. Power would shift from a Legislature elected by 120 different districts to a governor elected by a single statewide electorate. 

Case in point: northern California. Tim Hodson, the Executive Director of the Center for California Studies at CSU Sacramento, pointed out in a California Journal article a few years ago that 1.4 million Californians lived in the 21 counties north of Sacramento. They were represented by four senators and seven Assembly members who had 24 district offices.

Those legislative members, he noted, often worked as a block on district issues. But without a full-time Legislature, they’d have no advocate in Sacramento; none of the past seven governors have had field offices north of Sacramento, and no statewide elected official has served from the area in the past 50 years.

Rural states dominate those with part-time legislatures, and only six are as limited in their scope as what the initiative calls for (Montana, the Dakotas, Utah, Wyoming, and my home state of New Hampshire). On the other end of the spectrum, all but one of the top 11 most heavily populated states in the nation have full-time legislatures. Texas is the exception, and there is a strong movement there to make the Lone Star state’s lawmakers full-time.

Here in California, the initiative is Exhibit A for what’s wrong with our state’s initiative system. It’s the brainchild of the right wing initiative factory propped up by an AstroTurf “citizens group.” Its author is conservative Sacramento lawyer Tom Hiltachk, whose last failed effort was an attempt to divide California’s electoral votes.

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