We Need a Part Time Legislature but Grove and Costa Get It Wrong

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

The issue of the part time legislature is back in the news.  Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) and People’s Advocate head Ted Costa have introduced a constitutional amendment to do away with California’s full time legislature and substitute a 90-day legislature instead.  The two houses would convene in January for 30 days, then recess for two months, and then comeback for May 1 for 60 days.

California should definitely get rid of the full time legislature; it is an experiment that has not worked and has not led to better lawmaking; if anything it has led to worse.  But the Shannon-Costa 90-day part time version is nuts.  They need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that makes sense.

A little history.  In 1966, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to replace the old part time legislature with one that meets for 18 months of every two years.  One of the sponsors was Assemblyman Bob Monagan (R-Tracy) who teamed up with then Speaker Jess Unruh (D-Inglewood) to pass the reform.  Two decades ago, Monagan, who later served as Assembly Speaker, wrote that the full time legislature had not worked and that California needed a legislature that met in Sacramento for half the year and then went home for half the year.

Here’s how it works now.  The legislature convenes the first week in December and then immediately recesses for a month (that allows them to collect a salary but a month’s vacation makes no sense.)  Then in January they go to work but they really don’t; they can introduce bills but a horse and buggy provision in the state constitution says they cannot hear any bills until they have been in print for 30 days.  The legislature then dawdles through the spring until the deadlines occur, at which time they rush bills to the opposite house.  Then July 1 they go on another vacation for a month (if the budget has passed).  They then come back in August for a month, at which time all the bills have piled up.  Then they go through an orgy of fundraising while lobbyists wait for them to act on legislation.  And despite being in Sacramento now for almost nine months, the really important stuff is written at the last moment through “gut and amend” and rushed through in the dead of night before they leave for the year in September.

This is a terrible system and it should be junked, but Grove-Costa makes it worse.  The legislature really won’t get anything done in the first month even if they do away with the 30-day in print rule.  Then while they are gone the lobbyists will simply write the bills for them to pass during the short window when they return.  They will not be able to put together a budget in that short period, so Gov. Brown’s Finance Department will end up writing the state budget and it will be passed with little public oversight or input.

Costa is quoted as saying the problem is that the unions just run the legislature at will, and he is largely right.  A major bill to shift all the 2012 ballot measures to the November ballot was passed at labor’s insistence, with no public hearings or input, at the last minute this year.  That’s the abuse, but shortening the session to just 90 days makes that abuse more likely.  Legislation will pass with no input at all.  Real reform is needed to stop dead of night legislation through “gut and amend,” but Grove-Costa, if anything, makes this abuse easier.

Grove and Costa also drastically cut the legislature’s salary, but again they are firing at the wrong target.  We have a state commission to set legislative salaries; they no longer set their own pay.  It seems to work fine.  The real abuse is the outrageous pay of their staffs.  Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor the dead of night – and certainly not the bankrupt fiscal situation – has stopped legislators from giving their staffs huge pay increases.  Many staffers with six figure salaries make far more than their bosses; and this has spawned a permanent bureaucracy of legislative staffers whose role it is to complicate the process to justify their fat paychecks.

This needs changing.  An additional absolutely necessary reform not found in Grove-Costa is no fundraising while the legislature is in session.  We desperately need to end the fundraising in the month of August where legislators, frankly, just shake down special interests that are waiting for bills to pass.

Here’s how a part time legislature should work.  They would convene January 1 and go to work immediately.  No more “gut and amend” – final versions of all bills would need to undergo committee hearings and be in print for at least three days.  The last two weeks would be exclusively devoted to debating the budget, and they would adjourn promptly on July 1 (assuming the budget has passed and no pay if they go over the deadline.)

No fundraising this entire period. They can do that in the summer and fall, what the old pre-1966 part time legislature did: hold detailed interim hearings on major issues and deal with their constituents.

Now that is real reform and it makes sense.  It makes good use of legislators’ time and cleans up the real abuses.  A truncated 90-day session just puts more power into hands of the dominant interests (read public employee labor unions) and pushes more decision making behind closed doors.  Assemblywoman Grove and Ted Costa should withdraw their initiative, rewrite it to make it workable, and then take it to the people.

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