“Reform” is the byword in Sacramento and the meme on the blogs. Constitutional Convention. California Forward. And we’re about to be awash in proposed ballot initiatives for November 2010. Perhaps in response to the former, or in anticipation of the latter, the California Legislature is getting into the act.

Speaker Karen Bass and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg announced the creation of a special Legislative Committee on Reform to “look at ways to make the Legislature more transparent and effective and make state government more efficient and customer friendly.” The committees, chaired by Assemblyman Mike Feuer and Senator Mark DeSaulnier, are having their inaugural meeting today.

Bravo. If the Legislature can take a deep breath, reach across the aisle, and adopt substantive reforms, then maybe they can begin to climb out of the hole, instead of continuing to dig. In that spirit, here is my prescription for some easy, short-term successes – two principles, and three substantive proposals.

First principle: Since the biggest obstacle the Legislature faces is lack of public trust and credibility, they should “start small.” Many organizations are examining the meta issues of governance and process, including a constitutional convention, which is the ultimate process-about-a-process. But for the short term the best strategies are confidence-building measures, where bipartisan, bicameral agreement can be achieved.

Second principle: The Legislature should abjure for now notorious proposals that have been the subject of exhaustive and exhausting debate. In this category are most proposals for constitutional amendments, including reforms to term limits, spending caps and allocations, and tax and budget voting requirements. These proposals have been debated ad nauseum – some have been the subject of recent ballot measures – and in this climate the Legislature will not shine new light on these matters, much less develop consensus.

First proposal – government oversight. The Legislature does a poor job of oversight of Executive Branch agencies and programs. Oversight is not systematic; it occurs by exception or in reaction to a scandal. Occasionally the budget subcommittees conduct some oversight, usually when prompted by the Legislative Analyst’s budget analysis. Since the budget subcommittees do their fiscal work during a two- to three-month time frame, their charge should be expanded to also include oversight of agencies and programs within their jurisdiction. They could easily spend another two or three months to review the operations and effectiveness of selected agencies and programs, on a several year rotation.

Second proposal – transparency and accountability. The Legislature should create the gold standard for transparency in its decision making and information processing. The more the public can see of the discussion and information flows, the greater will be the perceived legitimacy of the decisions. Every committee hearing should be televised, and an accessible and searchable archive of these hearings should be maintained. Staff analyses of legislation should be published and uploaded 24 hours prior to every committee hearing and floor vote. Letters of support and opposition to legislation should be published and uploaded, as well as exhibits and analyses provided by the public and formal communications from the Administration.

Third proposal – economic impact analysis. Another key element of transparency is the quality of information used to make decisions. The Legislature does a passably good job of pulling together the fiscal impact of proposed legislation or budget proposals – much credit of course to the Legislative Analyst. But the same cannot be said for economic analysis. Bills that regulate, tax or otherwise add burdens to the California economy are routinely considered without regard to those effects. Likewise, there is no requirement that an independent, qualified agency provide an economic analysis of regulations proposed by the Administration. Statutes are often implemented that cost regulated businesses or individuals far more than originally intended – or more than alternative methodologies would require.

The Legislature should adopt reforms that would institutionalize economic analysis of legislative and regulatory proposals, much as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) does on federal legislation and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) does for federal regulations. The purpose of these reforms would not be to impose a policy decision on the Legislature or the Administration. Instead, it would be to inform those decisions with economic analysis along with all the other information you receive.

The Assembly and Senate should each create a committee to review the economic impact of legislation, just as both houses have Appropriations committees that review the fiscal impact of proposals on government and reject legislation that the government can’t afford. This “Economic Impact Committee” would review all bills that pass policy committees to determine what effect a proposal would have on jobs and the economy.

The Legislature should also add an economic analysis function to the Legislative Analyst’s suite of duties. This excellent professional staff can provide credible, impartial and high quality analysis of legislation, analogous to that provided to Congress by CBO, to better inform members of the Legislature of the costs or benefits to the economy of proposed legislation.

Finally, the Legislature should invest an Administration control agency – say, the Department of Finance – to provide credible, impartial and high quality economic analysis of regulations, just as the OMB provides in the national administration. This information would permit regulators, the Governor’s Cabinet and the Legislature to evaluate the economic costs and benefits of the regulations and to determine if there are more cost-effective ways to achieve the same policy goals mandated by statute.