CA Overdue For Part-Time Legislature

JUNE 27, 2011

The latest budget drama shows how California needs a part-time Legislature. It hasn’t had one since the late 1960s. Since then, few budgets have been balanced while meeting the June 15 constitutional deadline. In the past 24 years, only one budget met both criteria, the 1999-2000 budget during the dot-com boom, when the state briefly was flush with cash from the capital gains tax.

Demonstrating callousness and insensitivity, several legislators have had the audacity to complain recently about having their pay cut by the Controller John Chiang. Yet the budget they submitted by the June 15 constitutional deadline — the only deadline they seem to care about — was unbalanced. As Chiang said, the numbers just didn’t add up.

Chiang’s accountant’s judgment came after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the out-of-whack budget.

So, even just neutering the Legislature — cutting the time it spends in Sacramento — would help. Many people argue that the more time the Legislature is not in session, the less damage legislators can inflict upon California’s taxpayers.

And while this has been a popular theme among voters, it is not popular among many legislators.

Budget Drama

Some lawmakers say that the controller overstepped his authority and made a political decision when he decided to dock their pay.

“The Legislature itself should have volunteered to rescind our own pay until we put together something real that the governor will sign,” said Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point. Harkey said that because Democrats hold all of the cards and control the process, they ought to be able to pass a majority budget — especially since Proposition 25, which established the June 15 pay cutoff, was their idea, they wrote the language, and they pushed it through.

Thursday the Senate Republican Caucus held a press conference to refute Gov. Brown’s continued claims that Republicans have blocked the right of the people to vote on a budget.

“The governor is not telling the truth about what is holding up this budget,” said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton. “We are committed to fiscal balance. We have the highest unemployment and our jobs are leaving to go to other states. We need to change our way of doing business and get our fiscal house in order.”

“There are enough votes to put a measure before the people for a vote as long as there are reforms to vote on as well,” said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres.

Dutton spoke about the massive and unsustainable public pension system and the need for a spending cap to stop state government from continuing to over-spend.

“The reason that there is no budget deal is that the governor, the Democratic majority in the Legislature and their allies refuse to allow the voters the opportunity to reform pensions and control state over-spending,” said Dutton.

A reporter if Dutton said “blames Gov. Brown because he is in the pocket of organized labor,” and “can’t stand up to the unions.” Dutton replied, “He is acting like there is greater concern for public employee unions than our children in school.”

Brown has not outlined his specific objections within the budget, but said there were “legally questionable maneuvers” used in it. Many have speculated that this comment refers to the $1.2 billion state building sale-leaseback deal, which Brown has already nixed once, and is still in the courts for a legal decision; as well as the $1 billion grab from the First 5 Commission.

Constitutional Amendments

Since 2001, there have been 19 different constitutional amendments proposing a part-time Legislature for California or dramatic change in the way the Legislature operates. But none of the bills ever even made it into a committee to be heard.

As recently as 2009-10, there were eight different constitutional amendments proposed, all of which shriveled on the vine before ever seeing the light of day.

Technically, all 19 of the bills are “pending referral” to a committee — a shameful abuse of the process which is supposed to belong to the people.

Legislators know that voters would wildly support a part-time Legislature, but can’t risk even letting the issue make it to a committee. And so the game is to forever stall a particular bill by leaving it in “pending referral” status, where it will never be heard, or receive proper analysis or debate.

Harkey said this is the fate of many Republican bills, particularly those seeking to change the legislative process.

She has mixed feelings about a part-time Legislature and said she would rather see a limited schedule requiring lawmakers to work exclusively on the budget before any other legislation is introduced.

As for new legislation, Harkey would like to see Brown put a stay on any and all legislation until the budget is fixed. “A majority vote budget would do that,” Harkey said about “fixing” the budget.

“They control the process.  We’ve been offering solutions, but it is up to the Democrats to draft the legislation and present it in a form they can get votes for. But they can’t get their members on board with taxes,” said Harkey. She explained that polling throughout the state shows that voters are not in favor of more or new taxes. “No-tax polling is off the charts in both Republican and Democratic districts.”

Many of the 19 constitutional amendments introduced since 2001 are repetitive, since legislators will usually reintroduce the same measure session after session, once it gets stuck in the black hole of “pending referral” status.

Every year, California has to borrow money in order to keep the state’s cash flow moving. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the state’s budget impass

could harm California’s ability to pay bills and borrow money, potentially endangering the state’s economic recovery.

The stalemate has placed California’s credit rating “at a crossroad,” said Standard and Poor’s analyst Gabriel Petek in a research note. He added that a further delay could cause a cash crisis or the passage of a budget “that relies on as-yet unrealized sources of revenue…or legally questionable maneuvers.

California’s credit rating is one of the worst in the country. With such serious issues as a potential trillion-dollar state public-pension obligation, many financial experts say that it’s unlikely that California will return to pre-recession employment levels until the end of the current decade.

Could the Legislature inflict any more damage than they already have? Yes.

Harkey said that instead of passing tax bills, which lawmakers know they don’t have the votes for, they are passing more regulations. This will only serve to cripple the state’s remaining businesses.

Part-Time Legislature

The time is ripe for either a part-time Legislature or at least one that is required to do nothing other than work on a budget for one year until it is passed.

The states with full-time Legislatures — California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — all have suffered massive budget deficits and out-of-control public employee unions and unfunded public employee pensions.

The states which currently operate with a part-time Legislature are either okay, or are working responsibly to clean up a public employee pension and budget mess. They are: Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming. Also working well are “hybrid” legislatures that include both part-time and full-time aspects: Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

It is interesting to note that the Texas Legislature meets only 60 days every two years, as do the legislatures in 12 other states, including New Hampshire, North and South Dakota, Georgia, and Idaho.

While legislators may not be able to get a constitutional amendment past the majority party in California, the people would wildly support a part-time Legislature, or one greatly restricted.

It is time to put lawmakers in a time-out; they have proven that they are incapable of selflessly running the state, and instead are whining about not receiving paychecks. That, at least, is a condition all too familiar with California’s private-sector taxpayers, who have grown weary of footing the bill while being threatened with more tax increases every budget year.

The list of the constitutional amendments, by legislative session:

2001-02: ACA 16;
2003-04: none;
2005-06: ACA 19, SCA 26, SCA 30;
2007-08: ACA 7, SCA 27, SCA4X 1;
2009-10: ACA 29, ACA4X 1, ACA4X 2, SCA 2, SCA 17, SCA 25, SCA1X 2, SCA2X 2; and 2011-12: ACA 3, ACA 20, SCA 2, SCA 6.

Katy Grimes

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