A California Reform Doesn’t Keep Its Promise

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is director of the Study of State Legislative Leadership at USC's Institute of Politics and Government. </i>

Ronald Reagan jumped onto the political scene 20 years ago, overwhelmingly elected as governor of California. On the same ballot, by an even larger margin, voters approved an ambitious reform package to establish a full-time Legislature in Sacramento.

Just as the Reagan Revolution begins to totter, California’s vaunted “pace-setting Legislature” is earning more brickbats than bravos.

In 1966, Prop. 1A was the constitutional amendment that began the “upgrading” of the California Legislature into a full-time, “professional” body. The notion was sold by then-Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh and others: By removing restrictions on meeting times and dramatically increasing legislative salaries--at the same time Unruh was moving to establish a professional legislative staff--the Legislature would become more independent of special interests and gubernatorial control. Legislators would have more time and expertise to evaluate bills and develop their own policy initiatives.


Voters bought that argument. But by establishing a full-time professional Legislature, California voters got something else in the bargain. The full-time professional lawmaker has become a full-time professional politician. Policy-making and enlightened legislation--the goals of prop. 1A and subsequent reforms--have become subordinate to simply staying in office.

The upgrading of salaries, staffing and prestige has made the job of California legislator attractive to young, politically motivated, career-oriented men and women.

Since the start of expanded legislative sessions, most legislators have given up--or curtailed--work at other jobs to serve in Sacramento. When the Legislature is a career, incumbents spend their time fighting to maintain the only job they have. And that costs more and more money today.

In 1966, total campaign expenditures for California legislative races were in the neighborhood of $7 million. By 1984, they reached almost $45 million. That kind of stake in the process means time a legislator should spend on policy is spent on politics--running for reelection and raising big dollars from special interests in order to do it successfully. That also produces potential conflicts of interest; rather than becoming less dependent on special interests, legislators have become more dependent on their campaign contributions.

The professional staff, established to offer independent advice and analysis free from the political “spin” of lobbyists and affected interests, has suffered too. Staffers have become members of a large-scale bureaucracy; their policy expertise in the legislative process has been overwhelmed by political priorities.

Instead of serving the legislative institution that Prop. 1A attempted to build, today’s staff members owe their jobs and their individual loyalties to the legislators they serve. Real policy experts have too often been replaced by political hired guns whose main function is keep their bosses in office.


When both the legislators and the staff function as politicians, the whole system suffers. If staff time and energy are spent trying to figure out how to get the boss on the evening news or appeasing special interests, policy doesn’t get made--or it gets made for the wrong reasons, often with disastrous results.

Political gridlock can result from the competing agendas of legislators continually fighting for their political lives. This need to survive has also taken its toll on the independence and productivity of the Legislature. These days, the Legislature’s style seems more reactive--to the governor--than ready for independent problem-solving. The Legislature is more often viewed as an obstacle to getting anything done.

Reforms implemented over the past two decades don’t seem to be working, don’t do what they were designed to do. They did institutionalize a full-time Legislature but the institution itself is more polarized and politicized. There is little policy movement except for times of crisis (such as the post-Prop. 13 bailout of local funding); partisan advantage (battles about who can better clean up toxics), or rare moments of strong leadership (as was the case for South Africa divestiture).

What has happened to deflect--if not pervert--the goals of legislative reformers since Prop. 1A was enacted? Is the failure of legislative reform in California a reflection of the full-time, professional Legislature and the caliber of membership it attracts? Or does it rest in the psyche and culture of the state, a result of serious flaws in the political system in which all government institutions have to operate?

The answer, in all cases, is “yes.” The Legislature is a reflection of the larger political system, the personality of its members, the citizenry it serves and the surrounding political and economic climate. Legislators are politicians; politicians mirror their times.

The full-time Legislature, like all increasingly powerful, expanding governmental institutions, has developed a bureaucratic resistance to change; bureaucracies seldom take risks. Problem-solving often gives way to damage control and salvaging the status quo. Policy activists tend to become frustrated and move on, usually to be replaced by people who think the “game” of political survival is paramount and who are willing to invest whatever it takes to win.

But the problem isn’t merely institutional. Public priorities and demands on the legislative process have also changed. In the mid-1960s, money was available for legislative experimentation; the public trusted government to deliver what citizens had voted for and paid for in taxes.

That began to change as Californians, like other Americans, abandoned trust in their leaders--first Vietnam, then Watergate, later an economic recession at home. Public confidence in--and respect for--government’s ability to solve problems eroded. Public commitment to public funding shrank.

California led the way; Gov. Reagan’s “little people versus big government” rhetoric was joined by the political activism of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, both championing less taxes, less spending. California voters heard the message and bypassed the legislative process to cut their own taxes.

The use of the ballot initiative to achieve property-tax reform through Prop. 13 fueled perception of a stalled Legislature, unable or unwilling to function as a policy-making body.

But this tide is turning. In November, Gann’s Prop. 61, limiting public officials’ compensation, was overwhelmingly defeated. There seems to be a growing public realization of the risks of putting amateurs in charge of public policy. But not for long, unless citizens recognize what may be the most important key to the success of the full-time Legislature.

So long as the legislative process is dominated by the need to be reelected, money will also be the medium for potential corruption of the lawmaking process and legislators will continue to put campaign funding ahead of policy formulation.

Legislative reform must be accompanied by financing reform. As the new session begins, passage of campaign-fund reform will be the best way to prove that Prop. 1A can work--that legislative strength, independence and concern for policy are not failed hopes.