Our Unfocused Legislature

Why pay full-time money for part-time results?

When California shifted to a full-time Legislature in 1966, it was supposed to offer professionalism and allow for more focus on complex issues. But with a history of one government crisis after another – energy, workers’ compensation, the budget, education and traffic – what has a professional Legislature actually produced? Why pay a full-time $99,000 salary plus several thousand more in yearly expenses for less than part-time results?

Like the vast majority of states, including powerful Texas and Florida, California should return to a part-time Legislature. Reducing the amount of time lawmakers spend in Sacramento would force the Legislature to focus on the real priorities of the state.

Each session, several thousand legislative proposals are introduced, and together they reveal a lack of focus on core priorities. In recent years, bills have been introduced to mandate that gas stations not charge people to put air in their tires, to require couples seeking marriage to first read a state-sanctioned fact sheet on how marriage will impact their lives, and another that confronted the growing threat of unlicensed horse massage. The latest example is an effort to ban “Redskin” as a high school mascot. Each of these bills costs the taxpayers money, but more important, they draw attention away from real problems.

Additionally, the Senate must approve more than 600 governor’s appointees. While it may be reasonable to require legislative approval for the most powerful positions in the administration, the Senate also confirms positions including the State Acupuncture Board, the California Arts Council, the state librarian and the state poet laureate, to name only a few. If a part-time Legislature were instituted, many mundane tasks like these could be scaled back, thus making the governor more accountable for his own administration.

With a reduced schedule, lawmakers would come to Sacramento and know that priority issues would need the most attention. They would be forced to question non-core activities. A lobbyist shopping a bill about mandating free tire air or cracking down on rogue horse masseurs would face a much harder sell. And creating a government that questions what it does is a very good thing for the public.

If the Legislature wants to avoid the wrath of the public, it is not powerless, however. For starters, it should reconsider its attitude toward the comprehensive California Performance Review report that was just released. Rather than rejecting the report outright as many legislators did, the Legislature should work collaboratively to use the recommendations to balance the budget structurally. It is amazing what $32 billion in savings would do for legislators’ public image.

Equally important, the Legislature should change the once-a-decade process of drawing legislative districts so that the courts or an independent body, not the Legislature, draw political district boundaries. This controversy is a major source of fuel for the part-time Legislature fire.

If the Legislature does not reform itself, the public may well step in, just as it did with Proposition 140, which enacted term limits and tightened the lucrative retirement package that legislators enjoyed.

Yes, the challenges government faces are complex and deserve more attention. Unfortunately, the promises of a “professional” Legislature have not been fulfilled.

If it really wants to remain a professional Legislature, it should perform like one.

George Passantino is director of government affairs at Reason Foundation. He served as a director on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review.