How to Make California Just Like Bell

In poll after poll, Californians have trashed their state legislature’s job performance. Last week, a new Field poll found that just one of 5 Californians approves of the job the state legislature is doing, while nearly 7 of 10 disapprove.

Across the political board, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and non-partisan voters are negative in their appraisal (with Republicans the most negative (87 percent disapprove and only 7 percent disapprove).

But the same poll (PDF of highlights here) showed that, when asked whether they supported or opposed “the idea of changing the California legislature from one that works full-time to one that only operates part-time,” more voters opposed the idea than approved of it.

Democrats, whose party controls both houses of the Legislature and who could lose considerable clout in Sacramento, oppose the part-time status by nearly 2 to 1, but pluralities of Republicans and non-partisans favor the part-time legislature.

Over an 8-year period, from August 2004 to February 2012, the trend in voter approval for the proposal increased six points, while opposition to reclaiming part-time status shrunk seven points.

If a part-time plan makes it to the California ballot, there might be an outside chance of passage.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) is pushing an initiative to return California’s legislature to the part-time status it held before a massive constitutional revision was approved by voters in 1966.

Her proposal would trim the legislative session from 9 months a year to 3 months and reduce legislators’ pay from $95,000 to $18,000 annually.

Her initiative, Grove argues, would give Californians "the chance to vote to take back their government from the hands of career politicians and their special interests…much the way it was until the mid-1960s.”

Not quite.

Welcome to 1950s Sacramento, when master lobbyist Artie Samish, the self-styled “Governor of the Legislature” ruled the State Capitol.

"Citizen” legislators all had other sources of income.

“Some,” according to Samish, “augmented their income by outright bribes.” Others benefitted from “legal ways” of augmenting their income “and simultaneously making them friendly to your own organization.”

Full- or part-time, holding two jobs always has the potential for legislative conflict of interest.

In fact, there are numerous examples of this tension in part-time local governments today. Think City of Bell. Or Vernon. Or Compton.

By the mid-1960s, California’s part-time legislature, outgunned by the staff and resources of the executive branch, was meeting full-time, in myriad special sessions demanded by the state’s growth and complexity.

That’s when the legislature put Proposition 1A on the ballot; it offered legislators a full-time job with a full-time salary—to make them less susceptible to conflicts of interest, less dependent on lobbyists’ largess, and less dominated by a full-time, fully-staffed executive.

The outcome has been less than perfect. But don’t let the siren call of a “part-time,” “citizen” legislature fool you.

Politics is always a full-time job, and politics, in the best sense, is integral to shaping policy.  

The last time Californians voted to punish their legislators, they instituted draconian term limits. Hmmmmm…That reform sure worked out, didn’t it?

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