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Fear helps lawmakers focus

At least some legislators get it. They get that they’re essentially dysfunctional -- that voters look down on them as lower than slugs.

Actually, I suspect, every California legislator gets it. They live the failures, read the polls, hear the voices.

The voices were firm and frank last week at the inaugural meeting of a two-house, 20-member Committee on Improving State Government. Those legislators certainly had gotten it by the end of an all-day earful of lecturing by invited government experts.

The committee’s task is to recommend how best to reform the process of lawmaking.

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Start by not wasting so much time passing so many frivolous laws, exhorted state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a former attorney general and longtime state legislator who was Senate leader.

“There’s too much junk,” Democrat Lockyer told the committee members, raising his voice. “I’m sorry, but two-thirds of the bills I see come out of the Assembly, if they never saw the light of day, God bless it. . . . Just stop it! Just stop it! . . . Just say ‘No.’ ”

Committee chairmen can’t be counted on to weed out the hare-brained bills, Lockyer added, because “everyone’s running for [Assembly] speaker. So every committee chairman is going to be too nice to whiners.”

And nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, talking about spending bills, admonished his bosses: “You have to get people mad at you. You have to say ‘No.’ ”

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“People” includes colleagues and contributors.

The Legislature does pass too many bills -- some are attention-grabbers, others are favors for special interests or sought by local folks -- but the number has been steadily declining. This year, 953 bills were passed, roughly half the volume when Ronald Reagan was governor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed 696 and vetoed 257.

Legislative leaders created the reform committee for two basic reasons.

One is only whispered about. It’s the threat of mass demotion. There’s a proposed ballot initiative to reduce the full-time Legislature to part-time status, cutting members’ salaries in half. That wouldn’t be reform, only public retribution.

The part-time movement is struggling. But lawmakers are responding to the threat, trying to show voters that they can reform themselves.

As the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson observed: When a man knows he is about to be hanged, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The second, more important and publicly stated reason for the committee’s creation is that the state Capitol has fallen into dire disrepair. Politicians too often are paralyzed. California needs a functional Legislature to resolve its nagging budget, education, water, transportation and economic development problems, to list a few pressing priorities.

Term limits was the most commonly cited culprit at the hearing, from the political left to the right. Six two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year stints in the Senate simply aren’t enough to gain policy expertise, legislating skills, leadership strength and bipartisan relationships, several said.

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“Term limits is just an awful thing,” asserted Assemblyman Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), speaking publicly as few Republicans would have dared until recent years. “When you’re first up here, you’re just terrified. If you don’t have a good staff, your career is over before it starts.”

But experienced staffers have been leaving about as fast as termed-out legislators.

Last year, voters rejected a Legislature-originated initiative that would have allowed lawmakers to serve up to 12 years in either house but limited their legislative total to 12. That measure was fatally flawed by a provision that would have provided bonus terms for some current legislators. Now, there’s talk of proposing another 12-year term limit that wouldn’t apply to incumbents, only to future legislators.

“Put it on the ballot again, but this time don’t screw it up,” advised A.G. Block, director of the UC Center in Sacramento and a former journalist. “Don’t wrap it around a dead fish and hope that the public isn’t going to be bothered by the smell.”

But there would be an inescapable odor inside practically any “reform” that this Legislature -- with its pathetic 13% approval rating in the latest Field poll -- places on the 2010 ballot. That’s why several witnesses urged the committee to look for simple reforms the Legislature could enact itself.

“There’s nothing standing in your way to make changes if you have the political will,” said Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, former chairman of a constitutional revision commission and advisor to legislatures and governors.

Self-enacting reforms are not hard to find and several were mentioned: Speed up the committee hearing process so lawmakers don’t just cool their heels through winter. Give committees more power over major bills and reduce the dominance of the power-hogging “Big Five” -- the governor and top four legislative leaders. Enact two-year budgets and constantly monitor the money flow. Begin “performance-based” budgeting so failed programs can be scrapped.

Also: Democrats should give Republicans a better shake. Listen and maybe learn. After all, any money bill or constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote.

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“The majority has to involve the minority or they’re going to think that all they can do is throw bombs,” said lobbyist Robert Naylor, an Assembly Republican leader in the 1980s. The GOP has thrown many bombs in recent years.

Lockyer also offered this counsel to fellow Democrats: “We’re in an era when we’re not going to have tax increases. Give it up. Figure out how to use the money we have more effectively. Republicans can help.”

Afterward, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), co-chairman of the committee, said he found the candor by witnesses and lawmakers to be “very refreshing.”

There’s “a tremendous sense of urgency,” he added. Feuer is hoping for panel recommendations in January after the committee takes its hearings on the road in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the Central Valley.

Legislators will listen to the people’s voices while fearing the hangman.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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