Legislators -- the leaders, anyway -- know they must change the way they operate. The sooner the better. But they still can’t agree on exactly how.
The problems are clear: Bleeding, gimmicky budgets that lead to more deficit spending. Incessantly late budgets that cripple the state’s credit. Lack of prioritizing or long-range planning. Trivial pursuits. Petty partisanship.
There’s also an acute problem of special interest influence: business on one side, labor on the other, wing-nuts on both. But there’s little anyone can do about that as long as the Supreme Court equates money with speech and allows interests to make unlimited investments in appreciative political candidates.
Right now, however, there are some steps the Legislature can take to change its course. And those lawmakers who aren’t sequestered from reality and living in denial fully understand that:
* The Legislature’s approval rating is at an all-time low; it’s standing beneath a slug’s belly.
* With so little public trust, practically anything the Legislature proposes to the voters will be looked at suspiciously. Lawmakers need to earn back some respect.
* Outside forces are attacking. A Bay Area-based group, Repair California, is pushing for a constitutional convention and takes glee in every perceived legislative blunder as proof that the Capitol deserves a political earthquake. It is collecting signatures for two November ballot initiatives. Another smaller group is trying to qualify an initiative that would demote the Legislature to part-time status and slash its salaries in half.
Last fall, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) each created a Committee on Improving State Government. The two panels jointly held four hearings around the state.
“The public is just fatigued with our budget problems and wants us to act in a responsible way or they’ll do it to us,” says Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), the Senate chairman.
His Assembly counterpart, Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), says summer budget stalemates “not only are embarrassing, they’re disgusting.” And he adds: “Voters want to know that legislators are protecting their dollars and government is being run as efficiently as possible.”
Right. So what’s everybody going to do about it?
They’re not sure yet. Assembly Democrats will debate it during an all-day “retreat” at UC Davis on Tuesday.
Leaders are floating ideas. But many legislators need coaxing.
For example, some leaders would like to significantly limit the number of bills each lawmaker can introduce. That would allow more time for the Legislature to assess the outcomes of previously enacted legislation and to closely examine the efficiencies of state agencies.
In jarring testimony at the committees’ first joint hearing, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a former Senate leader, told the lawmakers that “there’s too much junk” being introduced. “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.”
But many lawmakers regard bills -- junky or not -- as their bread and butter with voters. And they’re balking.
Feuer says, however, that “legislators need to feel that there’s more to say to their constituents than ‘I got a bill signed.’ ”
Something like I helped save the state money.
“Oversight” is the watchword among legislative reformers. The Legislature needs to do much more peering into the operations of state government, they acknowledge. It has been doing very little.
And Feuer contends that lawmakers should set a few priorities for each year -- policies du jour -- and aim their efforts at those goals. “All we should be doing this year,” he asserts, “is the budget, reforms and getting money from Washington.”
DeSaulnier puts it this way, paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s mantra to his 1992 campaign staff: “It’s the budget, stupid. If we don’t focus on the budget, some not-so-good things are going to happen to us.”
Some contemplated “reforms” the Legislature could adopt on its own: Bill limits, prioritizing, transparency, strengthening committees, banning all-night sessions, moving faster.
Other steps would require a governor’s signature on a bill. They include serious oversight of agencies and “performance-based budgeting” that ties spending to the success or failure of programs.
A few major leaps would need voter approval of ballot measures.
One would change budgets from annual to two-year spending plans, with periodic fix-ups. The purpose would be to provide more time for budget oversight and long-range policy planning. It also would reduce the number of budget deadline brawls, self-inflicted wounds that mangle the Legislature and cost the taxpayers.
Other ballot measures being discussed: Any initiative that proposed to spend money would have to designate a funding source. The Legislature, with the sponsors’ permission, could amend an initiative and place it on the ballot without signature-gathering. Windfall one-time tax revenue could be spent only on a one-time project.
And the biggie: reducing to a simple majority the legislative vote required for passage of a budget. California is the only state that requires a two-thirds vote for both a budget and a tax increase. The two-thirds hurdle would remain for taxes.
Republicans would object. But as a trade-off, Democrats would agree to “clarify” which fees could be raised on a majority vote. They’d be prohibited from raising taxes while calling them “fees.”
Many of these ideas, including the majority budget vote, are included in two initiatives proposed by the bipartisan reform group California Forward. It and the Legislature are trying to negotiate a compromise package that they can co-sponsor. But if the Legislature doesn’t act by mid-February, California Forward will begin collecting signatures to qualify its measures for November.
“I’m not wildly optimistic but hopeful,” says Bob Hertzberg, co-chairman of the group and a former Assembly speaker.
The legislators have talked. They’ve conferred and debated. It’s time to act. Study time is over. Patience is played out.