Weighing the Benefits of a Part-Time Legislature for California

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.

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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.

(Troy Senik is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and an editor at Ricochet.com. Originally posted on City Journal.)

Comments

  1. Until this bill is passed, cut that 50,000 dollar perdiem they receive as a start, every other government employee has taken a hit in the pocket book…Its time they ante-up. Hey, if they go part-time and don’t pass a budget, we’re not loosing as much, being they won’t be in Sac screwing up more things.

  2. this is a great idea-once we get the right people in Ca. State govt.- Allen West has a great plan for this as well in D.C.- BUT-right now and for the last 50years California has been under a Communist siege. The State govt. right now is so infested it stinks. Any-socialist,marxists,communists,homo’s,muslims,mexicans don’t have any place in American,Local,State or Federal governments. Their has been massive voter fraud underway for years,a communist goal to create illusions,overwhelm the system-help take America into United Nations Agenda 21-New World Order. It must be stopped. The current governor,and federal reps are in it up to their necks. Swift justice is on its way. For more see whitehatsreport.com-they have been blocking this site so keep trying. Use different search engines.

  3. In case you haven’t noticed (sarc) we have an illegal alien muslim posing as Commander In Chief,that needs to be dealt with also. Our current Congress is well aware of this and does nothing. hmm.

  4. jim reed says

    While this is a fabulous idea, but If we have any chance of passing it doesn’t mean we are done fine tuning it.

    A bigger problem we have is all of the gov. staff and commttees constantly imposing new rules and regulations on the population.

    As soon as they get done screwing up one thing, they are back to work looking for something else to screw up.

    It is never going to get any better because these people are never going to go away.

    • Skeptical says

      Jim Reed, it helps to remember that the underlying stategy to the Legislature proposing a Full-time legislature, was not that the part-time legislature was broken for Californias needs. NO! It was done in anticipation of spending the projected rich field revenues of traditional agri-business, Hollywood entertainment, developing oil energy, and recently installed industries like aerospace, military contractors and the automakers would generate. It would TAKE a full time effort to tax and spend to make a California utopia (which never worked out). Surpisingly, all the great value for dollar achievements occured during the part-timers watch. World renowned appomplishments like the completion of the Interstate system, the aquaduct network, the education MASTER PLAN (a free university education to any qualified resident!!!!!) of the Pat Brown administration ended up mangled by folks needing to justify their full-time employment and too much time on their hands.
      Dont wonder why folks came a runnin’ from all parts of the country and the world to yank a handful of whatever they could here.
      Its the same reason beautiful women are not left unchaperoned.

      • Jim Reed says

        Skeptical,
        Thank you for the history lesson. While the majority of the events you made me aware of happened before my informative years, there probably wasn’t much I could do while trying to get my diaper changed.
        It seems like your point is that the chickens have come home to roost.
        Thanks

        • Skeptical says

          If anything I can offer that helps make sense of this ‘not normal or sane ” situation, I am glad to know when it does so. I was a child and pre-High school teen when these very monumental events occured. Even then though, I recognized a sense of trust and respect California residents had in the part-time Sacramento government. With the rapid infusion of folks from differant places with differant expectations, a base line of what reasonable expectations and outcomes ought to be became blurred. We now see our public servants/advocacy groups/lobbyists, and just how their actions could possibly mirror what prudent basic governement activity should be.
          Consider certain advocacy groups are currently arguing for voting rights for convicted prisoners while serving sentence (today!!) Common sense suggests: ‘Why are they incarcerated?’ Is their judgement impaired regarding consequential voting decisions?
          Seems obvious to me.

  5. Kudos’ to the people of Bakersfield for having the forsight to elect such a fine example of a public office holder. Now let’s see more of this in the comming election and maybe we can recover this once Great State for the people..

  6. Spyder dalton says

    Stop the billions being spent on sound walls! If they can’t afford to extradite felons back from other states
    And they make us releases them fromcustody back into the streets they shouldn’t be building hundreds of miles of sound walls. Someone needs to investigate who it is benefitting from this wasteful project!

  7. David Hesford says

    Comrades,
    I’m surprised to hear such negativity. Our State Leader Mr Brown is doing his best to bring you a National Socialist Government to coincide with what the Muslim in D.C. is doing. A Socialist utopia where all will enjoy the efforts of each. Where those who don’t pay taxes will enjoy the rewards of those that do. Where illegal residents will be given health care and offered higher education paid for by the tax paying citizen. And for all of this, the least you can do is send in a donation in the amount you have left over after you have paid you tax bill. This will be simplified soon by higher taxes and the Governments ability to remove it from your bank account. Sunny California ain’t so sunny now is it? There is so much more ahead thanks to our Socialist er I mean Democrat party.

    • Skeptical says

      Cheer up David! Throttling the goose that lays the golden eggs with over-regulation and over-taxation is self-correctively suicidal.

  8. I am ready to contribute to this cause. Where do I spend mine???

  9. Truckster1 says

    We have seen what the liberal progressive movement (which has been able to infilltrate the entire legislative body) has done to this once prosperous, once great, state of California. We are now past broke, we are so far in debt that we desperatly need a change.
    Our great country’s forefathers never envisioned full time career politicians. this is why the Constitution was written “WE THE PEOPLE” , “GOVERNED BY THE PEOPLE AND FOR THE PEOPLE”!
    Term limits has not worked, the politicians take care of their own. It must stop! The people MUST take back their state and their country. We The People” MUST” return to our state and our country to a FREE and PROSPOROUS land once again. The career politicians are unable to break away from the graft and corruption associated with special interest groups et.al.
    It is left up to the PEOPLE which is where it always should have been to make the rules.
    When you have an endless source of financing (We the People), and have no one to answer to but yourselves, you lose sight of what you are actually doing and who it is actually affecting.
    A part time legislature is a start! NO MORE CAREER POLITICIANS !!!!

  10. Peter Zobian says

    A part-time legislature, strict and short term limits, no shifting from house to house, no moving from politician to lobbying, strict limits on lobbying, decrease in staff and regulatory positions and budgets, plus strong anti-corruption laws — might start to clean up the cesspool that is California government. But don’t hold your breath!

  11. Rottweiler says

    Let me guess if the apathetic crew gets up from watching American Idol long to prioritize voting if it wins won’t they just appeal it like they did Proposition 187 (passing by 68%) of the vote and Proposition 8 (passing but snuffed out) because obviously it doesn’t matter what the majority says as long as the other opposing groups has lots of funding, special interest groups and liberal judges they can over throw it. Seems this is the way California rolls, if it is voted in just get rid of it. Similarly, remember we voted to get a public advocate to represent our (the tax payers) when the DWP began to hike the tiers sometimes 4 times in a few years? We voted for one and it passed and guess what they circumvented a way around it and our rates just went up and will continue thanks to our illustrious non-Mayor another 4 tiers. Do you think this will fix infrastructure? Nonsense it will go into the City Counsel’s general slush fund for them to spend for their pork projects, special interests, decorating their offices, traveling you name it the corrupt just get more corrupt. These people make me sick but the ones that keep voting the incumbents in make me sicker. California is 3rd world thanks to the rule of liberals x 30 years, we are a model for failure.

  12. Skeptical says

    “….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.”

    CART BEFORE THE HORSE! Facts are, the imploding California economy cannot support the numbers of residents currently existing, meaning that some will nessesarily relocate. That means that a ful-time legislature, which does not enhance economic growth but rather stifles and discourages growth through over-regulation, cant justify itself.
    That line of crap might skate in good toimes, but not now.

  13. I grew up in the time of the part-time legislature. I recall that the state budget was done on time and balanced. The members of the senate and the assembly were a mix of people with careers in fields other than politics and some retirees. Most of them weren’t there for the pay and privileges, they (of all parties) were there for their fellow citizens and the good of the state. I believe that two of the biggest political mistakes in the 20th century were passing the 17th amendment to the US Constitution and California giving up its part-time legislature.

  14. Skeptical says

    In a personal perspective, I am sure that political analysts read what the ‘unwashed masses’ are posting in open Internet forums. It does my heart good to know that when they relay their finding to the slugs, and leeches (both lobbyist and legislator) residing in Sacramento, the unavoidable conclusion will sadly be to them that the party is truly over. Time for them to really, “MOVE ON”.

  15. Jim Reed says

    I just signed the petition to get this initiative the ballot. It seems impossible to get the numbers of signatures needed.
    We all need to find this petition and get everybody we know to sign it.
    Talking about the issue is all fine and good, but we neet to actually do something about it.

    • Skeptical says

      I recieved and signed it too. Jim, think about it, how many folk to you know have said they feel on the bottom of the dogpile; with no way to get from under it? Those folks have plenty of time to register, if needed, and sign one of the six slots below your name (follow the rules about who can sign). The bold type summary says what the initiative would be about. Its an easy sell. Just let folks know what you have and why, and let their self-suffering to the persuading.

  16. Jay L. Stern says

    This is a great idea! I’ve heard it before and I know it has merit. I’m running for state assembly, 46th AD. It is mainly in the San Fernando Valley, but includes a sliver of Hollywood to the south. I’m the only Republican in the race. There is a forum Tuesday night (20 March) and I’m going to bring up this idea!

    • Jay,
      Thank you for wanting to get involved. The citizens of california need a lot more people like you willing to get involved.

  17. I’m all for an acknowledged parttime legislature. In actuality, they are ALREADY.
    CALIF TAXPAYERS COULD BENEFIT IMMENSELY. All the dumb — things they pull would be fewer. They can’t seem to get a budget together. They do great harm to our childtren by voting in immoral laws. They are as useless as teats on a boar hog.
    It might cut out a lot of harm their radical ideas are causing our state.

    I lived in Texas where legislators are parttime. It works out just fine for this huge state. Fewer looney proposals and time constraints which make for a stick to-it-ness to get their job done. Plus, less time for the public to get snookered with per diem claims.

  18. Marc Thomas says

    I live in Virginia and I’m all for it. I’m also in favor of doing away with the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and re-instating automatic recalls.

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