For those of us who believe that the Constitution of the State of California means what it says and is not just a set of suggestions, yesterday June 15th was the constitutionally mandated date that the state budget was due. As of this writing it remains overdue and according to Senate President Pro Tem Perata will not be done for quite awhile.

To quote a story from last week by veteran Capitol reporter Timm Herdt of the Ventura Star, “Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said a long, hot summer lies ahead. He said there is no chance that the state will have a budget in place by the beginning of a new fiscal year July 1, but that negotiators will be focused on meeting a more meaningful deadline of Aug. 1.”

The thing that struck me the most was the cavalier way Senator Perata dismissed a constitutionally imposed deadline as if it means absolutely nothing to him or his caucus. They have known about this fiscal train wreck for months and are just now getting around to submitting their budget so they can reconcile the differences with the Assembly and then haggle with the Governor over the final price for funding California government for the next fiscal year which begins July 1st, another date that will be missed by the way.

But this post is not about the budget process.

In 1966 then Speaker of the Assembly Jesse Unruh, with the support of both candidates for Governor, Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and incumbent Democratic Governor Pat Brown, proposed and passed one of the most significant changes to the California Constitution. It took the State Legislature from a part-time status that met only 120 days a year and had small salaries and per diem and made it full time with large salaries, per diem and other benefits.

At the time Unruh said it was necessary because California was a large, growing state and we needed a “professional” Legislature. Old Reagan hand Ed Meese said a few years ago that Reagan told him later that supporting the measure was one of the worst decisions he ever made. No matter, the deed was done and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

I am not advocating that we return to a part-time Legislature, although given the current state of affairs it is mighty tempting. But I am a realist who knows that the powerful forces controlling the Capitol would never permit that to happen, would spend whatever it took to defeat such a proposal at the ballot box and bury the proponents in the political graveyard. You can almost hear them saying “try that and you’ll never work in this town again”.

But I am very concerned about the unintended consequences since California voters made that fateful decision in 1966. We have created in California a permanent “political class” who move from office to office, from being a staffer to running for the Legislature or other office without ever having set foot in the real world that the rest of us live in. They rarely bring the kind of real world experience that is necessary to make complex fiscal decisions. Some like fellow blogger Dr. Keith Richman had successful careers before they ran for office, but they are the exception and not the rule.

As I see it the main problem is that the Legislature has become a career and not a civic duty. It is complete with a career path, six figure salaries, car allowances, healthcare and fancy titles. With this career however, you rarely get fired for poor performance because through gerrymandered districts you get to choose your own bosses. And your main goal is getting re-elected so you can keep that six figure job and all it brings.

We have also compounded the problem with term limits. This created another unintended consequence. We now have politicians who are always looking for the next office and they create Legislation meant to please interest groups that can be helpful in future elections. This is one of the few bipartisan things that happens in the Capitol. I would gladly trade term limits for fair and honest redistricting that can create competition and require both parties to speak to the broader electorate and not just the far right or the far left. And while we’re at it, that includes Congress.

Another problem is the volume of Legislation that is passed every year and sent to the Governor. In the four years Arnold Schwarzenegger has been governor 4,362 pieces of legislation have been sent to his desk. (Just for comparison, Governor Wilson in his eight years had 11,284 bills sent to him). On average he has vetoed about 25% of them. Out of the 4,362, 3,788 eventually became law. Does anyone in their right mind think we need almost 1,000 new laws every year? While some may have merit, many of them create new things we have to fund or are solutions in search of a problem. And many are nanny state legislation that erodes the freedom of the individual or opens new business lines for the trial lawyers.
Finally there is the initiative process. More and more the voters are being asked to make the decisions that the Legislature should be making. The ballot box is a terrible place to settle critical issues because political campaigns reduce the issue to sound bites and TV commercials and ask the voters to pick.

We hired the Legislature to tackle the tough issues, but if the voters are the ones who constantly must be called upon to do so, it begs the question, what are they doing?
There is also the role of the voters. In 2005 I wrote the following in the Capitol Weekly. Unfortunately it is still true today.

“At some point the voters must shoulder their share of responsibility. If
nagging problems like the cost of public employees pensions are not
addressed soon, there won’t be any money to fix the other problems facing
California. But I guess the self-absorbed, ipod-listening, text-messaging,
reality show-watching public can’t be bothered with the serious business of
citizenship. But citizenship is not and should not be a passive activity
like watching television.

Almost 2500 years ago, the Greek statesman Pericles said, "Just because you
do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an
interest in you".

We are all collectively responsible for California’s welfare. The more we
allow ourselves to be swayed by 30-second ads and slash and burn political
tactics, the more we abdicate our role of holding politicians accountable
for their actions.

An electorate that is increasingly disconnected from those who govern is a
recipe for disaster. Open political discourse is the lifeblood of a healthy
democracy. But if the citizens are not vigilant because they are "turned
off" by politics or think that because a law or initiative was passed that a
problem is purportedly solved, then the voters will deserve what they get.”

I don’t have all the answers and don’t know how we change the political culture in the Capitol to get better results. I do know this. That if the Legislature does not take up the cause of reform and change the way they do the people’s business, the people will one day rise up and do it for them. The Recall of 2003 proved they not only can but will if pushed too far.

And I guarantee you that any change at the ballot box will be much more draconian than anything the Legislature wants.