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An Argument in Favor of a Part-time California Legislature

Now that the elections have passed and Californian’s have returned to their long commutes, too much coffee and fires burning across the state, it’s time to consider a serious topic: The questionable efficiency of our state legislature.

California is home to about 11% of the total United States population but the 120 member California Legislature is – on a per capita basis – twice the size of the US Congress.

The Legislature is bi-cameral – divided into two chambers: Assembly and Senate.

The 80 member Assembly is elected to two year terms and the 40 member Senate to four year terms.

Once elected, they receive a salary of $100K a year plus a car allowance and employee benefits. They are given a budget to hire a full-time professional staff. All of that intended to help them make good decisions with and for their constituents.

Why Imposing Term Limits Created a Bigger Mess

Running for office is not cheap: At least $850K for an Assembly Seat and $1.1M for a State Senate seat.

An incumbent member has a great advantage in raising those large sums from lobbyists and others who stand to benefit or suffer depending on who sits in the state legislature and for how long.

Until voters revolted in 1990, passing a term limits measure (Proposition 140) — once elected, incumbents had an excellent chance of staying in office until they decided not to run for re-election. It was just too expensive, too difficult to mount a successful challenge against an incumbent.  This led to a lazy and non-responsive legislature.

Voters in 1990 (revised in 2012) imposed a life-time term limit of not more than 12 years in the state legislature and eliminated legislative pensions — a life-time annuity equal to 67% of their legislative salary after a minimum of 20 years of service.

Term limits forced current Senate President Pro Temp, Keven DeLeon, to take on the quixotic challenge of trying to unseat current US Senator Diane Feinstein in 2018. He could not run for a third term in the state senate this year.

Our Elected Officials Must Working Harder, Not Smarter

Members of the California State Legislature run for office – pledging that they have a vision for a better California. They have ideas and plans to share in the legislative process that will improve the lives of all Californians.

Their candidacy is a pledge to work full-time for the people of California – to do the research, investigate the issues, debate the potential solutions with their colleagues and their constituents and then pass laws that will serve the greater good of the greater many.

Statistics show they’ve been busy – passing about 1000 bills in this last legislative session. Some of those bills really mattered but many rewarded special interests and contributors:

  • Utilities can now pass some of their liability for wild fire recovery on to rate paying customers.
  • Plastic straws are available in restaurants only on request.
  • All California Corporations must have women on Boards of Directors.
  • For-profit charter school corporations cannot operate in California as public charter schools
  • And California utilities must use 100% renewable resources by 2045.

Cal Matters – which compiled the list referenced above, complains that the legislature couldn’t do more in this session because the Democrats lost their super-majority and, with it, the ability to ram ideology over common sense down the throats of Californians – i.e. “make deals”.

Accepting as a truth that ideology should rule over compromise and common sense, by itself, begs for a change in our legislative structure.

Common sense and compromise are the only way to address the truly critical issues facing the people of California!

  • Reducing the rate of poverty in California – the highest in the nation
  • Increasing the supply of affordable housing in California
  • Sheltering 130K homeless in California
  • Maintaining an adequate water supply
  • Creating fair taxes and fair tax systems
  • Insuring the public health
  • Updating specific sections of California Labor Code
  • Managing the increasing gap between state employee pension promises and pension plan funding balances

Absent both the common sense and the political courage to compromise and make the hard decisions our collective future requires – the legislature leaves the politically tough decisions to voters.

November’s ballot forces you and I to make decisions about managing — but not fixing – most of those vexing problems without the benefit of all the research, debate and discussion possible through an effective legislative process.

Restoring Part-Time Legislature is Common Sense

Begging the question: Do we need a full-time legislature, if the members can’t tackle the tough stuff? My answer is a resounding NO!

Only 10 states of 50 have full-time legislatures. Those states have the most expensive governments in the nation (per capita) along with the highest levels public indebtedness.

Begging the question: Do we need a full-time legislature, if the members can’t tackle the tough stuff?

My answer: A resounding YES.

Would aA part-time legislature made up of people who work regular jobs in the communities they serve would be more creative and more responsive to the voters who send them to Sacramento to do the people’s business.

The most common The argument made against the return to a part-time legislature asserts the that a full-time legislative staff would gain more power. But would that be such a bad thing?

In 2015, the Legislative Analyst prepared a comprehensive report with recommended changes to help alleviate the affordable housing shortage in California. The analysis concluded with a series of recommended changes to existing law and policy that would make more land available and reduce the time involved in obtaining project approval in sensitive areas. That would mean changes to environmental impact policy, land use policy, project planning regulations and so forth.

These changes that would have impact on special interests who contribute to political campaigns. The report became “shelf ware” never discussed in committee, with no legislative fix debated in either the California Senate or Assembly.

But a comparison of the thoughtful staff work done by the Legislative Analyst on obstacles to increasing the supply of affordable housing gives me more confidence than does the army of lobbyists in Sacramento who wine and dine our elected representatives – to bend their ears and their votes leading to stalemate or just plain dumb policies turned into law. For example, November Ballot Proposition IA – may help an estimated 33,000 California households over the next decade.

A member of the legislature sitting at their his or her desk, doing a real job, eating a neighborhood sandwich shop sandwich rather than an expensive lobbyist lunch would empathize with their constituents — rather than focusing on special interests.

If members of the state legislature drove to work every day in their own cars on the same streets and roads as their constituents, they would not vote to impose a 25 cent a gallon gas tax increase – 80 percent of which they plan to spend to extend high speed rail from Silicon Valley to Merced.

A member of a part-time legislature would grasp the absurdity of arguing a three hour commute costing $65/day (beginning some time after 2025) iIs any sort of solution – let alone the best answer — to our affordable housing crisis.

Hoover Institute’s Bill Wallen makes a strong argument that term limits have left a void of knowledge about agricultural policy, drought/flood cycles, financial boom/bust cycles, education policy etc. in the ranks of the legislature – anointing the governor chief policy officer rather than the chief executive officer.

Might Californians be better off – with a part-time legislature that is not term limited?  More years — spent partly in the legislature and mostly in the community — would allow each member to develop deep expertise in specific policy areas. Respect for those expertise could foster an atmosphere for collaboration would allow the members of legislative committees and, ultimately, the legislature to make better decisions by listening to the expert peers they find among themselves.

Until 1966, California had a part-time legislature.

Honestly, are we better off today?

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