The Bill Factory: Lots of paper, few results

Since I began in the Assembly in 2001, I have been struck by the scant attention we as a Legislature collectively pay to the really big issues that plague California and weigh us down everyday. Like the budget—the document that expresses most of our policy proposals that a majority of lawmakers don’t even see until we’re asked to vote on it. Like the lack of attention to our most challenging obstacles, such as our unacceptable high school dropout rate, increasingly aging infrastructure and our inability to retain business investment and create jobs in California.

 I have also been surprised over these years at how little time we spend examining how well or poorly our programs are performing. Or, after such examination, our failure to reform and improve programs, supporting those that do well and eliminating those that do not. And what about legislative oversight? Except for a few instances, it really doesn’t occur.
It is for these reasons that last week I sent a letter to the Governor, the Legislative Leaders and each member of the Legislature calling upon us to suspend our legislative work and concentrate our attention and energy on the fiscal crisis we face. I also urged the Governor to call an extraordinary session to determine methods of creating more jobs. These are the first meaningful steps we must immediately take to help alleviate our serious short-term fiscal problems. But there is a long-term crisis at stake and if we do not address it now, California will continue facing yearly deficits.

We find ourselves having to make tough choices year after year because we fall into our familiar pattern of operation: as the bill factory tunes up and oils its machinery, we will feed it huge amounts of paper and, sure enough, enormous quantities will spew out. Hundreds of hours of work, both on our own legislation and that of our colleagues, will occupy us fully and then some. I understand that we all believe strongly in the legislation we have developed. I understand that we all believe that many of our bills will improve, in some way, our state.

 But in the meantime what we will not have done is examine, analyze and propose solutions to the real problems facing California. It is this broken process that has lead us to what is perhaps the greatest fiscal challenge presented to the state since the Great Depression. Many of us, and I am among them, fear that California is at a “tipping point”, where if we do not address our long-term situation soon, we may fail to avert an acceleration of these problems that will be even more difficult to stop.

In order to address our chronic problems, last year I introduced legislation to dedicate the first year of every two year session to analyzing the effectiveness of programs, hearing testimony on how we might improve our state and conducting genuine oversight. While legislators “work” on a budget each year, we don’t give it the extensive time and attention a budget requires. We fail to examine expenditures in-depth to make sure that spending matches results so we can eliminate programs that don’t work—and further support the ones that do. Yes, this approach would require time and expertise, but the stakes are big, and the future of California should not be shortchanged.

I’m gratified that in the past year, other members have also introduced similar reforms to deal with these issues. Select committees in the Senate and Assembly have worked diligently to hear methods of improving state governance. But as well intentioned as the attempts to address these problems are, they cannot result in the immediate solutions we need. These issues demand that we solve them now, with the great sense of urgency that they require.

It’s time for Sacramento to change business as usual. Our fiscal crisis, our jobs crisis and the host of other issues are here, before and upon us, each and every day. If we are to help lead California forward, we must concentrate all of our time and energy on finding both the short and long term solutions that are so drastically needed. Our state, our citizens, deserve no less.

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