Legislature bashing has become California’s new official blood sport. From Gov. 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 (ensuring citizens and interests all have a voice). Two voter-approved initiatives pushed by the right – term limits and the 2/3 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.
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.
The legislature itself also would look far different. California has one of the most diverse group of lawmakers in the nation, representing a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic groups. According to the NCSL, part-time legislatures are disproportionately white, wealthy, and older. After all, what farm, school or business could allow a key employee to leave for three or four months at a time to serve in Sacramento? And who else besides the wealthy could raise and spend the millions in campaign dollars it takes to get elected, knowing it was only a part-time gig with little influence on public policy?
Part-time legislators also would have considerable conflicts of interest. In Texas, for example, the sub-minimum wage paid Texas legislators has resulted in repeated episodes of corruption. Legislators repeatedly have used their office to champion their clients and employers. (This year the Texas legislature was forced to toughen its disclosure requirements after a public outcry.)
Compare that to California. Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies recently noted in an NCSL publication: “We don’t see examples of outright conflicts in California…My feeling is, California legislators have less time to have outside income than obviously the legislators in Texas.”
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.
Most states with part-time legislatures are rural and only six are as limited in their scope as what the proposed California initiative calls for (Montana, the Dakotas, Utah, Wyoming, and my home state of New Hampshire). At 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 process. 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.
Proponents have yet to find a sugar daddy to bankroll their effort. Part of the reason is a PPIC poll that showed only support at a lowly 23 percent (the poll was before the initiative was amended to include the salary cut. Private polling of the new initiative I’ve seen shows only slight approval.)
Despite daily plugs on the right-wing “John and Ken Show,” time is running out for the initiative to qualify for the November 2010 ballot. And despite their frustration with the legislature, Californians appear to be wise enough not to want to turn back the clock.
Steven Maviglio is the executive director of Californians for an Effective Legislature, www.effectivecalifornia.com, Twitter: effectivelegis, Facebook: Citizens for an Effective Legislature.