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California

Troy Senik
First, Do Less Harm
Californians weigh the virtues of a part-time legislature.
2 March 2012

California voters don’t go for half-measures. Property taxes are too high? Pass Proposition 13, capping tax increases for the duration of an owner’s tenure in his home. Crime is too widespread? Implement three-strikes laws, throwing away the key for repeat felony offenders. Taxpayers burdened by illegal immigration? Pull the lever for Proposition 187, cutting off publicly financed benefits for the undocumented. So what will Californians do when the problem is an inept, unresponsive state legislature? If one Republican assemblywoman has her way, they’ll send them home, at least part of the time.

Shannon Grove is a freshman Republican from Bakersfield, a rare conservative redoubt among California’s major cities. She is proposing a dramatic overhaul of the way the state does business by returning the legislature to the part-time status it had prior to a 1966 ballot initiative. Grove is working with Ted Costa, a conservative activist known for his role 22 years ago in shepherding the Golden State’s term-limits initiative and his more recent leadership of the drive to recall Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

Currently, the legislature meets year-round. Members draw salaries of $95,000 per annum, plus a tax-free, per diem stipend of $141.86 every day that they’re in session. Under the terms of the proposed constitutional amendment that Grove and Costa submitted to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen earlier this month, the legislature would meet just 90 days a year, with a maximum of 15 additional days allotted for emergency sessions called by the governor. The legislature would operate on a two-year cycle, focused on constructing a two-year budget in odd years, then turning to non-budgetary matters in even years. The amendment would prevent legislators from receiving any pay from government-appointed positions for five years after leaving office (a frequent tactic of retiring California politicians looking to maximize income while minimizing work). And it would drop legislative pay to $18,000 per year.

In the words of Grove and Costa’s filing, “California’s experiment with a ‘full-time’ ‘professional’ Legislature has failed. The result has been a Legislature dominated by career politicians beholden to special interests.” It’s hard to disagree. When Californians invoke the state’s “golden age”—the era when it erected massive new infrastructure projects seemingly by force of will and built one of the most dynamic public university systems in the world—they’re generally referring to a time before the full-time legislature. In the years since, the body has descended into self-parody. It almost never produces a budget on time, and when it does, the state’s books are usually “balanced” by a series of accounting tricks so obvious as to discredit the process. It churns out legislation on an epic scale: Governor Jerry Brown signed 745 bills into law last year, a number that seems daunting—until you consider the fact that state legislators actually introduced 2,300.

And lawmakers have a seemingly insatiable appetite—even in the midst of the state’s widespread public-sector failings—for inanity. Bills taken up in recent years have included banning Mylar balloons, prohibiting teenagers from using tanning beds, unionizing babysitters, and outlawing trans fats. No surprise, then, that a December poll showed the legislature’s statewide approval rating standing at a dismal 22 percent.

Opponents of the part-time legislature, led by Democratic former Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer, argue that the plan will diminish the quality of the state’s political leadership. That would take some doing. Opponents claim that a state of California’s population and economic might—the ninth-largest economy in the world, according to a January report by the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy—can’t be managed by what Frommer calls “a part-time commission.” That contention ignores the example of Texas, where a part-time legislature has ably overseen a larger land mass and a statewide economy second only in size to California’s.

Critics also contend that a part-time body would breed corruption, as was true of the earlier part-time legislature in some instances. But as long as elected officials, part-time or full-time, control access to the public purse, malfeasance will remain a possibility. The current legislature—where the Democratic majority is in the thrall of organized labor and other liberal activist groups—is hardly a model of rectitude, in any event.

Grove and Costa offer some persuasive arguments of their own. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that their proposal could realize annual savings of tens of millions for taxpayers—welcome economies in a state that currently spends more than a quarter-billion per year to finance the legislature. And a truncated work schedule would almost certainly force lawmakers to focus on a handful of significant issues rather than wading into social marginalia such as whether smoking should be disallowed in tobacco shops (yes, they actually considered it; no, it didn’t pass).

Yet, for all its virtues, a part-time legislature is unlikely to move the needle much in California politics. While advocates point to Texas and North Dakota, where part-time legislatures are currently presiding over economic booms, they likely have the causation wrong. Most states that have embraced the part-time model have political cultures inclined toward limited government. In deep-blue California, a part-time legislature would remain populated by liberal Democrats intent on redistribution and over-regulation. Claims that a part-time body will discourage special interests are also suspect. Does anybody believe that California’s armies of lobbyists—whether from big labor, the environmental movement, or the business community—will lay down their arms because of a condensed legislative calendar?

And Californians have been disappointed by grand promises before. When Proposition 140, the term-limits initiative, passed in 1990, proponents sold it as a political cure-all that would abolish the class of “career politicians” and usher in a new era of good government. At two decades’ remove, however, even many of Prop.140’s former defenders now concede that it did little beyond creating constant electoral jockeying among term-limited politicians looking for new offices, while shifting the locus of power in state politics to veteran lobbyists and staffers.

The lesson from that experience is that there are no simple institutional fixes to California’s woes. Accordingly, voters shouldn’t expect a part-time legislature to be a silver bullet. But that doesn’t mean that the bullet shouldn’t be fired.

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