A four-week Sacramento acid test

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Capitol Journal

The difference between a full-time and a part-time Legislature is four weeks. And those four weeks begin today.

It would behoove our lawmakers during the next month to show us what they’ve got, besides full-time pay ($95,000) and perks ($142 in tax-free per diem seven days a week while in session).

There’s an increasing clamor in California for rolling back the clock 45 years and returning the Legislature to part-time status.


A recent Times-USC poll found that 65% of voters favored making the legislators part-timers and cutting their pay. That sentiment was shared by voters of all stripes and locales. It followed that 59% disapproved of the Legislature’s job performance; only 25% approved.

It wouldn’t take much of a campaign war chest to pass a ballot initiative demoting the lawmakers to part-time.

OK, but we’re really talking about only four weeks — the time between when the Legislature returns from its monthlong summer respite today and it knocks off for the year Sept. 9.

Even back in the part-time era, the Legislature usually met well into June. Since then — when they haven’t bogged down in a summer budget swamp — the full-time lawmakers have vacationed in July, returned for a month in August and then pretty much closed down until January.

The governor can always call the legislators back into special session, regardless of whether they’re full- or part-timers.

The argument for a full-time Legislature in California — unlike in mid-size and Pygmy states — is that this state is the nation’s most populous and diverse. It has complex problems that often need immediate attention.


Weakening the Legislature merely would shift more power to the governor and the Capitol’s 1,000-plus lobbyists. And it would breed corruption: Who’s going to hire these part-timers during the off season? Think special interests.

Well, here it is August and the state, indeed, has complex problems that need immediate attention. In fact, you could say without exaggeration that California is in dire straits.

The economy is still in the doldrums. The unemployment rate is hovering around 12%, roughly three points higher than the national average. California’s tax revenue is falling far short of expectations, jeopardizing the recently enacted state budget that was balanced with spending slashes. At this pace, much deeper cuts will be needed in public education at all levels — a poor plan for the state’s future.

Also, California is saddled with an outmoded tax system that relies too heavily on the rich realizing big capital gains. That creates extreme volatility in times of boom and bust. Moreover, our sales tax is geared toward a declining retail economy and virtually ignores the expanding service sector.

But the Legislature is frozen because reforming the tax structure would require a two-thirds vote. And Republicans believe voting for anything that smacks of a tax increase would destroy their political careers.

That’s why Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders are trying to form a business-labor coalition to back a tax initiative on the November 2012 ballot. The measure would raise taxes, but business might support it if the levies were broad-based — aimed at personal income and sales, rather than at individual industries such as oil.


“Either we find more revenue or we have continuing, deepening retrenchment,” Brown told me. “We’re facing a period of retrenchment that hasn’t fully sunk in. That’s really my work here — to keep hope alive while restraining spending to the maximum degree.”

For the next four weeks, he said, “my legislative agenda is to align reality with the current set of desires.”

The governor also intends to unveil a jobs program this week, a spokesman said. It has been a long time coming.

California’s legislative session actually lasts two years and ends in the even-numbered election year. Normally during the August windup of the first year, the procrastinating lawmakers shove off their toughest decisions until the session’s second half. They also raise a ton of political money from special interests that crowd the Capitol currying favor.

But given the state’s current distress, the usual dilly-dallying shouldn’t be acceptable this time.

I asked Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), a perennial optimist, what he expects to achieve in the next four weeks. He had a long list and was cautiously upbeat.


“Everything’s got to be about the economy and jobs,” he said. “It doesn’t take any genius to know that should be the legislative focus....

“We’ve got to get our arms around regulatory reform.”

Don’t expect Democrats to cut Republicans in on any deal, even though the GOP long has advocated business regulatory relief. Democrats gave up on the minority party when it refused to trade regulatory reform — along with spending and pension reforms — for Brown’s proposed tax election. They see no reason to bargain with the GOP on any bill that requires only a simple majority vote.

“We’re going to do it in our way,” Steinberg says. “Not with a sharp arrow pointed at us.”

His ideas include shortening the state permitting process, eliminating reams of duplicative regulations and requiring that any proposed new regulation be analyzed for its economic impact.

The Senate leader also wants to give California companies a preference when bidding on California government projects. And he envisions expanded tax breaks for jobs creation and purchase of manufacturing equipment.

We’ll be waiting to see, in four weeks, whether a full-time Legislature still seems worthwhile — or whether the sour public has it right.