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Time to pull plug on full-time state legislature?

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POSTED August 23, 2009 2:35 a.m.
Is it time to return to the days of yesteryear when the California Legislature was a part-time affair?

Given the track record of that once august body since it went full-time in 1966 it is an idea that deserves consideration.

The Citizens for California Reform is now circulating an imitative for the November 2010 ballot that’s dubbed the “Citizens Legislature Act.” They have just over 140 days to collect nearly 700,000 signatures of registered voters to put the proposal up for a statewide vote.

The Golden State is only one of six states with a full-time legislature. The measure would go into effect at the start of 2013. There would be a 30-day legislative session each year starting the first Monday in January and then a 60 day session starting the first Monday in May.

One can make a case that the state has gone to hell in a hand basket since 1966 when “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh got a full-time body in place back when he was Speaker of the Assembly.

The move came after more than a decade of awe-inspiring achievements in California that impressed the world from the finishing touches on the state’s water conveyance and storage system to modern freeways that were second to none to a major expansion of the university and college systems as well as building state-of-the-art prisons. It was all done using bonds based on the strength of California’s lean and aggressive state financing.

That was back when California had 18.8 million residents. Today we’re closing in on 38 million residents.

It was also when there were a lot less redundant agencies and fewer regulations coming out of Sacramento’s legislative sessions.

An argument can be made that the more time elected politicians have the more they can pursue things to the detriment of the state. Instead of pursuing broad-based directions, the legislature micromanages through tons of new laws each year that often conflict with existing ones.

Do we need all the laws that run the gamut from regulating businesses to essentially telling classroom teachers what to do? It is a good question. We need some but do we need all?

How would California be different today if elected officials were limited in the amount of business they can do? Would they be more focused on budget issues and the basics or would they continue to try and jam pet projects through the legislature?

Of course, everyone’s “baby” is an essential. How, though can the California Arts Council using taxpayer funding to distribute grants and hire staff be as essential as law enforcement or schools especially since the state underwrites art in many ways already from public schools to  the University of California? By the same token, is it really necessary that state buildings when they are constructed have public art components as was required starting in the 1970s by decree of the legislature?

The full-time status has created an attitude that is destructive by isolating elected leaders from day-to-day realities.

If someone who actually had to farm for a living, run a business or run a household while in office they’d see things a lot differently.

First, they have to go back and make a living under the rules they pass in Sacramento.

They also would have to really face their neighbors instead of make quick tours like some visiting head of state.

Some fear that such a move would put professional staff in total control. That’s simply not the case. Right now, the chief of staffs and other professional bureaucrats who have either known no other life than Sacramento or who are beholden to the system are calling most of the shots right now. With the ton of legislation that gets proposed it is impossible for an elected leader to follow it thoroughly.

The charm of a part-time legislature comes into focus when you realize it cuts by about two-thirds of the time that they can be in session for business.

You are not cutting the salaries of legislators. What you are cutting is the ability to jam the system up with special interest laws and spending. If you make the conduit smaller you can’t flow as much stuff through it.

A part-time legislature based on time in session could start the process of putting government on a program to slim down and replace fat with muscle.

As long as a full-time legislature feeds the state a steady diet of pork with undisciplined adoption of laws and regulations, California is going to suffer.
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