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State legislators: hopeless, irresponsible

Around the nation, it’s big news: California has run out of money, doesn’t have a budget and, like some teen borrowing money for soda at the high school cafeteria, is scrawling out IOUs to cover its debts.

In the heartland, such profligacy would elicit gasps, then anger. Here, it prompts yawns.

After all, the Legislature has adopted only two of the state’s last 10 budgets before the annual July 1 deadline, and those came when we had huge surpluses and lawmakers were in hurry to spend it. When it comes to saving money, the pace is considerably more relaxed.

The Assembly and State Senate are used to the drill. There is no rush to beat the budget deadline and no shame in missing it. Regrettably, we constituents have become used to the irresponsibility, and the needle of public outrage has barely moved.

It should: This year’s gridlock comes amid California’s worst-ever, $24 billion budget deficit.

And those IOUs? Due to higher interest rates, they will end up costing the state $3.4 billion over the next 30 years.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a fiscal emergency, adding a third monthly furlough day to two state workers must already take. While the governor urges a crackdown on fraud and waste, critics nail him for failing to tax big alcohol and oil to the hilt.

Meanwhile, in their capitol offices, bureaucrats who don’t have a clue where Sonora and San Andreas are plot raids on Tuolumne and Calaveras county property and gas tax revenues. And Democratic and Republican lawmakers — for whom unthinking partisanship has become an acceptable and, in fact, comfortable way of life — remain in a state of gridlock measured in geologic terms.

All the while, our state representatives have enjoyed $116,000 salaries and benefits (including $36,000 in annual per diem, a car, free travel and paid health-care premiums) that boost total compensation closer to $175,000 a head.

Altogether, the California Legislature costs about $244 million annually to operate — that’s more than $2 million per member.

A state commission on lawmaker pay has approved an 18 percent pay legislative pay reduction due to the rough economic times, but by law it will not kick in until after the 2010 elections. Meanwhile, state senators have discussed only a 5 percent voluntary pay cut.

Of course, such moves will have but a minuscule effect on the state’s swelling deficit. Still, it is is particularly galling that lawmakers have done so little — both in terms of solving the state’s budget problems and making personal sacrifices commensurate with today’s hard times.

That very few of our lawmakers — thanks to custom-drawn, party-tailored districts — need worry about election challenges only adds insult.

Yes, term limits have helped. But we’ve all seen the well-rehearsed Sacramento dance where termed-out Assembly members move on to the State Senate, then to Congress, statewide office or a cushy, well-paid seat largely seat on some largely invisible state board or commission.

So what’s the answer? In the short term, unfortunately, it’s likely more pain.

In the longer term, a fundamental change in the way we elect our representatives is in order. State Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Central Coast Republican who has alienated his more doctrinaire colleagues in the Legislature, proposes an open primary under which voters would mark a single ballot that includes candidates of all parties (and those who don’t claim allegiance to any party) for legislative or statewide offices.

Then, instead of the lead Democratic and Republican finishers squaring off in November, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would meet. The result? More moderate lawmakers tied less to party ideology and more to the best interests of their constituents and the state as a whole.

The proposal, thanks to Maldonado’s support of last February’s budget compromise, will appear on California’s June 2010, ballot.

Until then, a sudden, unexpected and if long overdue onset of enlightenment and common sense in Sacramento may be our best hope.

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