Accountability, part-time lawmakers needed

By Union Democrat staff February 19, 2009 09:28 am

The victim of intransigence, self-interest, brinksmanship and archaic, outdated rules, California’s budget was at this writing held hostage.

The culprits are our state legislators, who seem to be willing to push California and its 35 million residents up to and over a fiscal cliff.

With tens of thousands of jobs at stake, dozens of programs at risk, scores of projects frozen, collective costs going through the roof and the state’s bond rating dropping like a rock, our Assembly members and state senators have engaged in partisan bickering that would shame a kindergarten class.

That this wrangling has gone on for months and has taken a severe toll on California’s economy is bad enough. Making the situation worse is that the tawdry but costly drama is a rerun: Last summer the Legislature took 85 days to pass a flawed budget that was within weeks of passage exposed as woefully inadequate.

The most recent attempts to repair that state budget, sadly, showed that our legislators have learned nothing. Even if a budget has been passed by the time this paper hits the streets, nobody should forget that our elected representatives were ready to throw us under the bus.

A move to recall all 120 of them would be understandable.

But more tempting and practical might be turning the clock back to 1965, the last year California had part-time lawmakers. Back then legislators spent only 120 days a year in Sacramento, which brought dual benefits: The state’s business was done quickly and efficiently, as required by a four-month session, and lawmakers spent much more time with their home-district constituents.

Not only that, but joining the 46 states that now have part-time lawmakers would save California plenty of money. According to one study, costs would drop by more than 50 percent and the average number of aides per legislative office would plummet from nine to one.

Of course our senators and Assembly members wouldn’t much like part-time work. But what have they done to earn full-time trust?

Blind adherence to party lines is largely responsible for the protracted stalemate.

Democrats for months refused to eliminate pet programs, and most Republican legislators made formal pledges not to cut taxes before this budget mess began. Now, fearing that their political credibility is at risk, most are sticking to their no-tax guns even though California needs revenue like the victim of a head-on collision needs blood.

Here’s how bad it has it become come: Through much of the this week only one more GOP vote was needed to pass a tooth-pulling compromise budget that Democrats and a scattering of Republicans backed. State Senator Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, whose district includes Calaveras County, was believed to be a prime candidate to cross over.

But he refused. “I don’t need any more information,” Cox said. “I’m not voting for this budget.”

So, with the governor poised to send layoff notices to at least 10,000 state workers and with cities and counties around the state in a precarious financial limbo due uncertain state income, rule by the few degenerated, apparently, into rule by one man.

Blame voters, who in the hard times of 1933, passed an initiative requiring a two-thirds’ majority for budget approval.

But what may have worked then doesn’t work now, which might be deduced from the fact that only three of the union’s 50 states require such a super-majority. When combined with the political intransigence and polarization that California’s gerrymandered, politically safe districts create, a perfect storm of legislative irresponsibility is created.

Last November voters approved a measure stripping redistricting duties from lawmakers and giving them to an independent commission, which is a start. But more change is needed, including elimination of the two-thirds’ budget requirement and, if not return to a part-time legislature, at least the return of some degree of accountability.

The next legislative elections are still two years away, but we voters can’t afford to forget — neither financially nor politically — what has happened this year.