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Part-Time Legislature is a Special Interests’ Dream

In the midst of an international financial crisis severely impacting California’s state finances, there is much discussion about governmental reform. Bipartisan groups including California Forward and the Bay Area Council have suggested a number of creative ideas. Among them is a proposal for a constitutional convention, amending the two-thirds majority legislative threshold to pass our budget, revisiting our tax system and amending, not ending, term limits.

One idea not included in the discussion of these many groups is the ill-conceived notion of a part-time legislature. Adopted by voters with a 3-1 margin through the passage of Prop 1A in 1966, the full-time legislature was born. It reflected the voters’ recognition that California’s growth and complexity would lead it to become the nation’s most populated state and the world’s 8th largest economy.

Prop 1A also created a more professional legislative body which afforded its members the opportunity to become experts in various issues.

That all changed when voters implemented term limits and repealed legislative pension benefits, which took effect in 1996. As a result, most legislators serve their districts for the limited six years in the Assembly and return home. Far fewer have the opportunity to continue their public service in the Senate. With a near 40% membership turnover in the Assembly every two years, some Capitol veterans suggest that the state is represented by ever less experienced legislators, giving more power and influence to special interests, staff and the executive branch.

So who is behind the push for a part-time legislature? Last week’s Capitol Weekly guest op-ed in favor of this idea was written by Gabriella Holt, a recently failed candidate for the Assembly. Curiously, when Ms. Holt ran for legislative office in 2008, her top priorities were health care reform, public safety and controlling government spending. Nowhere on her website was there any mention of a part-time legislature. But of course, that was last year when she was singularly focused on becoming a full-time legislator.
She is currently identified with Citizens for California Reform (CCR), which has a certain grassroots ring to its name. According to the Secretary of State’s website, CCR raised just $1,000 in the first half of this year, representing exactly one donor, the Alliance for Ethical Government (AEG). AEG is now a defunct committee. But in 2007-08, its largest and most prominent donor was Colonies Partners, which contributed $100,000. And who is Colonies Partners? According to the Press Enterprise (http://www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/PE_News_Local_S_pacs02.3fcdb1d.html), it’s “a company led by a prominent Inland area developer (who) funneled more than $1.2 million to a host of political action committees that spent heavily on local elections, campaign records show. One of the PACs last year was the principal financial backer of a campaign that defeated an incumbent San Bernardino county supervisor… who had opposed the county’s $102 million legal settlement with the company.”

So Ms. Holt’s CCR is actually a front group for deep-pocketed developers with a history of bestowing large political donations on like-minded candidates and taking out elected officials who dare to challenge them.

It makes perfect sense that Colonies Partners and other special interests would support a part-time legislature. With members in session just 90 days each year and earning a part-time salary, the rest of the year they would make attractive candidates for employment by these same special interests. Of course, the expectation would be that these elected officials would represent their bosses’ interests in Sacramento. This is exactly the phenomenon currently experienced in Texas, which has a part-time legislature.
Hiram Johnson is spinning in his grave.

There are a few basic reforms which would immediately improve the dysfunction of today’s legislature and protect voters from the corrupting influence of the special interests. One: Clean Money campaigns. When legislators no longer need to raise money for their elections, the dollar’s influence evaporates and they can focus on the public policy work they were elected to do. Two: Return democracy to the legislative process and let a simple majority approve the budget. The two-thirds threshold is the major cause of our budgeting failures. Three: Amend term limits so legislators can serve only 12 years, but in any combination of houses. This will return greater stability to the Capitol’s operations.

As the state’s population soon grows to 50 million and the challenges to our infrastructures of water, energy, education, health care, transportation, housing, and the environment become only more complex, do we really want a less experienced legislature attempting to make ever more difficult decisions in just 90 days? Imagine all of the special sessions the Governor would be calling for then.


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