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Legislature’s Budget Process Needs to Be Torn Down and Rebuilt

Can the Legislature be fixed so it no longer plays fiddle-faddle and rants rubbish all summer? So it stops blowing off the California Constitution and the public and passes a budget on time?

Of course. Some tinkering would help. But what this structure really needs is outright demolition.

There’s increasing talk about it after the Legislature--specifically the Assembly--postured and vacillated for 62 days into the new fiscal year before finally passing a $98-billion budget.

Without a budget, private vendors were stiffed millions. Services were pared for the elderly and disabled. Schools were left hanging.

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So the first thing that’s needed is to inflict even greater pain on legislators. Change their behavior with a nasty deterrent that whacks the lawmakers’ own budgets.

If there’s no state budget by the start of the fiscal year, July 1, the lawmakers’ $99,000 salaries--$113,850 for leaders--should be docked each day that a budget isn’t passed. No retroactive pay later.

Likewise, they should permanently lose their $121 per day, tax-free expense allowances for each day there’s no budget.

Gov. Gray Davis actually endorsed that idea when he first ran for governor in 1998. “We’re sent [to Sacramento] to do the work of the people,” Davis asserted during a debate. “When people don’t work, they’re not paid. That same rule should apply to those of us in Sacramento.”

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OK, dock the governor’s $165,000 salary too.

Also, focus the lawmakers’ minds: Forbid them from voting on any other bill after July 1 until a budget is passed.

And don’t allow either house to recess. If the Senate again passes a budget first, it should stick around to offer the Assembly mature guidance.

But this is mostly tinkering.

The big culprit is the two-thirds majority vote requirement for passage of a budget. It should be scheduled for demolition at some future state election.

The two-thirds requirement was the brainchild of do-gooders in the 1800s. They theorized that if the Legislature were straitjacketed, spending would be held down. Right!

It “has just as often actually increased state spending,” a bipartisan citizens commission reported in 1995. “Stories abound of ‘buying’ votes to reach the two-thirds.”

Few other states require super-majority votes for a budget.

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In California’s Capitol, it gives minority Republicans relevance. Although badly outnumbered in both houses, at least some Republicans--four in the Assembly, one in the Senate--must be romanced by Democrats to help pass a budget.

But Republicans have abused this power by tying up the Democrats’ budget proposals without offering alternatives. By not negotiating realistically. Or at all.

The majority party should be empowered to govern and then be held accountable by voters. Now, lines of responsibility are blurred.

Term limits is another wicked culprit. It’s even worse than people think.

Assembly members are inexperienced in crafting deals. Many also are ignorant of state government.

Beyond that, the “veteran” Assembly members about to be termed-out are treated as has-beens and not used in budget talks. Veterans like former Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) and former Appropriations Committee head Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) sat on the sidelines in their sixth year. A waste of experience.

Don’t demolish term limits. But expand them to practical lengths, like 12 years in each house.

Do demolish the primary election system.

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This system--combined with the incumbent-friendly redrawing of legislative districts--has led increasingly to the election of extremists, Republican and Democrat.

Because the Supreme Court abolished California’s open primary system, only party members and independents now can vote in a primary. That bars moderates of the other party. And because these districts were drawn to be slam-dunks for the incumbent party in November, all the action is in the primary. Republicans run to the right and Democrats to the left.

Once elected, Republicans must guard their right flanks against future primary challenges. So they refuse to vote for a tax increase to balance a budget. Similarly, Democrats resist deep cuts in social programs.

A solution is being developed by the state Chamber of Commerce.

It’s contemplating a ballot measure that would make all legislative, congressional and statewide primaries similar to mayoral races: They’d be open to all voters and not be party primaries. Candidates could run with party designations, but there’d be no party nominees. Instead, the top two vote-getters--regardless of party--would compete in November.

That is major demolition. And overdue.

But let’s start by cutting off the dawdlers’ pay.


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