New session offers lawmakers a chance to set a meaningful agenda

California Legislature ought to measure its productivity by more than the number of bills sent to the governor

California's two-year legislative session began Monday as incumbent and new members of the Assembly and state Senate took their oaths. But it seemed as if the Legislature was already off and running before Thanksgiving, because some lawmakers announced their first bills even before they were seated. They've become something like the retailers who move up their holiday opening hours earlier each year, from Black Friday to Thursday midnight to the pre-holiday Monday, to get a jump on the competition.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. A bill is just a bill and must go through the regular legislative process regardless of how early it is announced or introduced.

But lawmakers in past years have too often churned out bills geared toward capturing news headlines or responding to the needs of particular interest groups without regard to the state's collective needs. And the Legislature has too often gauged its productivity by the number of bills sent to the governor's desk or the number of new laws enacted.

As the new session begins, the Legislature has an opportunity to remake itself, becoming less a bill factory and more a body that sets priorities and sticks to them. It also should renew its emphasis on oversight of programs put in place by earlier Legislatures and by the governor.

The opportunity comes in part from the fact that the economy has stabilized and that the budget is healthier than it has been in at least eight years. There is no immediate need for deep cuts or new taxes. The political heat is largely off, although only temporarily. Lawmakers can take a breath.

Also, a greater percentage of lawmakers are now covered by the term limits reform adopted by voters two years ago. Senators and Assembly members who took their seats in 2012, and those who joined them this week, will be able to stay in their current offices — voters willing — for 12 years (members already in office when the measure passed must follow the previous term limits law: a maximum of six years in the Assembly, eight in the Senate). If the reform works as intended, members will be able to take a longer view and not be so concerned about racking up headline-making bills with an eye toward advancing to another office.

With that in mind, they should set their sights on the date, just two years from now, when the Proposition 30 quarter-cent sales tax increase expires, and on the expiration of its income tax increases two years later. Some will no doubt seek to make the higher sales taxes permanent, and that's a fine way to start a conversation, but Californians will rightly expect a full discussion of why the tax increases should or shouldn't be continued and a full set of alternatives. Some lawmakers have already broached plans for new taxes in addition to the Proposition 30 increases to pay for particular programs. They must show how they fit in with, or at least don't stand in the way of, a lasting budget fix.

Lawmakers must undertake a serious, wholesale rethinking of how their taxes are levied, including, for example, whether to tax some services in exchange for lowering some income taxes, or making other changes that make revenue more predictable and less volatile from year to year.

At the same time, legislators should focus on economic development, recognizing that the ultimate source of revenue for needed programs and services is a strong economy with new jobs and prospects for continuing growth. There is a place, of course, for bills that seek to further regulate the workplace and the environment, but they must be considered in the context of an economy that needs to attract and keep employers.

The state also needs to focus on drought and water. Whether or not storms bring a normal snowpack to the Sierra after three straight drought years, California shouldn't lose the momentum it gained with landmark groundwater legislation this year.

The state Constitution sets forth education as California's top priority, yet the state ranks near the bottom in educational achievement. Lawmakers must focus on improving the quality of K-12 education and work to ensure that the state's public university system remains first-rate and accessible.

They should continue rethinking California's criminal justice system with an eye toward keeping Californians safe, while at the same time taking necessary steps to reduce the prison population and provide offenders reentering society with the tools to live legally and productively outside the system. They should monitor the implementation of Proposition 47 and ensure that the state's prison problems are not merely transferred to counties.

They should consider the measures that voters rejected this year and recognize that, despite defeat, there may be work to be done in those subject areas. For example, should they reset the pain and suffering medical damages cap, as contemplated by Proposition 46?

They should recognize that even though the electorate speaks through the initiative process, voters can say only yes or no to particular questions. Voters cannot, through the ballot box, set priorities or rank their choices. That is a job they must leave to the Legislature.

Of course, lawmakers will continue to present bills that respond to the headline of the day or are tailored to the needs of a particular interest group and have little to do with the priorities that this page or anyone else would set. That doesn't necessarily make them bad bills. But the Legislature as a whole, to be productive, should set, share and try to stick with an agenda that meets California's challenges.

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