Initiative Would Restore Citizen-Legislators
By KATY GRIMES
Is California ready to return to citizen-legislators?
In 1966, voters passed Proposition 1A, creating a full-time legislature and an annual state budgeting process. Today, California is one of only a few states with a full-time legislature, and has the longest scheduled session of any state legislature in the country.
With 120 legislators working diligently to justify their full-time jobs, the full-time Legislature has created a culture of career politicians in California, and a labyrinth of heavy-handed state laws and regulations. Under the Democratic Party and organized labor control, not everyone in the state is happy with the way politics have become a profitable cottage industry.
There have been many legislative reform attempts to limit the power, size and scope of California’s Legislature. But these bills are forever assigned to stagnation on a dark shelf in the legislative Rules Committees, which refuses to assign reform bills to the committee process for hearings. This is just one of the reasons that many in California believe that the political process is broken and needs a complete facelift.
Ballot Initiative Filed
The California State Assembly, known as the lower house, has 80 members, 52 Democrats and 28 Republicans. The upper house, the California State Senate, has 40 members, 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans.
California for two decades has had gerrymandered legislative districts. Although that might change a little next year thanks to Proposition 11, which voters passed in 2008. It created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which has devised supposedly less-gerrymandered districts.
Under the current system, and likely the new one, most of the 120 ruling state legislators are dependent for existence on labor unions and the ever-expanding public-employee tax waistline.
This has led to the filing of a constitutional amendment ballot initiative last week to make California’s Legislature part-time. The aim is to diminish the power of professional politicians and return control of the state to citizen-legislators.
Attempts to Limit the Legislature
In 1990, California voters passed term limits on the California Legislature. Proposition 140 limited state Assembly members to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms. Term limits impose a lifelong ban against seeking the same office, but that hasn’t prevented politicians from making soft landings to other appointed positions within state government.
Instead of leaving Sacramento after their terms are up, California’s legislators commonly either run for a seat in the other house, or find a way to get appointed to a well-paying state board or commission until they can run for another political office.
That’s what grates on voters. America’s government was formed using a citizen legislature, primarily with citizens who have a full-time occupation besides being a legislator. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States and primary author of the Constitution, wrote that legislators should be “called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature and continued in appointment for a short period of office.”
The Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves by now.
States with part-time, citizen-legislatures include Idaho, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Even Texas, with 25 million people, has a legislature that meets only every other year for 140 days.
Some states, by contrast, have a full-time, professional legislature.
However, the states with full-time legislatures — California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — have all suffered massive budget deficits, out-of-control public employee unions and unfunded public-employee pensions.
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, filed the constitutional amendment ballot initiative, along with People’s Advocate CEO Ted Costa, renowned for his leadership in the gubernatorial recall election of Gov. Gray Davis.
Grove ran for her Assembly seat as a private-sector businesswoman, and plans on going back to her business when her legislative terms are up.
If the ballot initiative is passed by voters, the California Legislature would meet no more than three months per year: 30 days in January, and 60 days in May and June. Governors would be permitted to convene special sessions, lasting no more than 15 days. Legislators’ pay would be scaled back from nearly $9,500 per month now to $1,500 per month, according to Grove.
But Grove has said that this is not an attack on legislators, and instead is only an attempt to take the perks and appeal out of the full-time job and bring it back to real public service, allowing anyone to run for office.
Most of the states pay lawmakers less than half of what California legislators are paid. Some pay much less than that: Nevada pays just $137.90 per day maximum for 60 days of session. New Hampshire pays $200 for a two-year term. Alabama pays $10 per session day. Texas pays $7,200 per year. New Mexico only pays for legislators’ expenses; there’s no salary.
The larger, union-dominated states pay closer to California’s legislative wages, but not as high. Pennsylvania pays $78,314.66 per year. New York pays $79,500 per year. And Michigan pays $79,650 per year. Wisconsin only pays $49,943 per year.
The ballot initiative would require the Legislature to submit a balanced, two-year budget by June 15 in every other odd year, and would forfeit legislators’ pay for every day it’s late.
But the most significant change could put an end to the careers of the political elite: Legislators would be prohibited from accepting political appointments to state boards and commissions while in office, and for five years afterward. Many involved in the campaign say that this is probably as significant a change as making the Legislature a part-time body.
A long-time joke around the state Capitol is that the California Unemployment Appeals Board was created as a place for career legislators to land after they were termed out, to prevent them from being unemployed. There are currently four former state legislators on the board.
Critics and Supporters
There are critics of the measure in both parties. Some say that the Legislature needs to remain a full-time body in order to govern a state as large and economically diverse as California. Others say that Democrats don’t want to give up the power structure they have created, dominated by organized labor.
Last June, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-San Juan Capistrano, said she had mixed feelings about a part-time Legislature. She would rather see a limited schedule requiring lawmakers to work exclusively on the budget before any other legislation is introduced.
Assemblymen Dan Logue, R-Linda, and Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach, have signed on as early supporters.
The Sacramento Bee reported, “John Vigna, spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, said a part-time Legislature makes little sense in a state with one of the world’s largest economies. He also took a jab at Grove’s job performance.”
“This is an irresponsible proposal coming from someone who hasn’t put forward any real solutions to our long-term challenges,” Vigna said.
But that isn’t entirely accurate. Grove has proposed several government reforms, but can’t get the Democrat-controlled Assembly Rules Committee to assign the bills to other legislative committees.
Others ironically express support for a part time Legislature, saying that less damage can be done to the state with a limited, part-time body.
Some within the ballot initiative campaign are concerned that the Attorney General’s office could sit on the ballot proposal as long as possible, cutting into signature-gathering time. There are only 150 days to gather the 807,615 signatures needed to qualify the constitutional amendment initiative to the ballot.
“If the ballot initiative is passed by voters, we will see more Shannon Groves in the Legislature and fewer career politicians,” said one campaign insider. “They won’t be able to work on protecting their jobs anymore, and instead will work for the people of the state.”
Tags: Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, Ballot Initiative, California, California budget, California Legislature, Democrats, government, Jerry Brown, Katy Grimes, Public Employee Unions, regulations, Republicans, Sacramento, tax increases, Ted Costa, unemployment, unions, waste
June 17, 2013