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Commentary By Ben Boychuk

Should California Go Back To Having a Part-Time Legislature?

THE ISSUE: Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a Bakersfield Republican, is circulating petitions for a November ballot initiative that would reduce the state Legislature to part-time status for the first time since 1966, as well as slash lawmakers' pay to $1,500 a month.

Should California go back to having a part-time Legislature?

Ben Boychuk: Yes

Priorities, ladies and gentlemen. Priorities.

A Legislature with 95 days to enact laws is one less likely to spend a great deal of time introducing and passing useless legislation.

Not to say a part-time Legislature would do away with useless laws entirely – any such expectation would be pure utopian silliness.

But given a limited time window, lawmakers would be forced to pick and choose, instead of introducing every dang-fool notion simply because "there oughta be a law." (Looking at you, Joe Simitian!)

Legislating in California today is all too often an exercise in preening and self-esteem. Gov. Jerry Brown admitted as much in December, when he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Just because a bill is useless doesn't mean I should veto it, because there's a certain comity required. ... It's a bit discouraging sometimes to be a legislator and all you have is a few bills."

Brown signed 745 bills into law last year, by the way.

A part-time Legislature could save tens of millions of dollars annually, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. Right now, legislative expenses, including salaries, per diem pay and travel reimbursements, cost taxpayers $256 million a year.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a Bakersfield Republican, argues a part-time Legislature would also help restore some luster to the "citizen legislator" ideal. Elected representatives who spend less time in Sacramento would have more time serving "their constituents' best interests" at home. Maybe, but probably not.

Remember, that was roughly the same claim for term limits 22 years ago. It didn't work out as planned.

It's also hard to say exactly how much influence special interests would gain or lose under a part-time model. Dario Frommer, a former Assembly majority leader and a Democrat, argues the old, part-time Legislature was corrupt. In some ways, that's true.

But would it be too obvious to point out that it's 2012, not 1966? More than a few laws changed in the aftermath of the corruption and pay-to-play scandals that tarnished the full-time Legislature in the 1980s.

Frommer also says California's problems won't be solved by having the government of the world's ninth-largest economy "run by a part-time commission."

I would note two problems with Frommer's analysis. First, a part-time Legislature is not the same as a part-time government.

Second, and more important, it isn't the Legislature's job to "run" the state's economy.

If Frommer's view is indeed the prevailing one under the Capitol dome, then all the more reason to pare back legislators' time and compensation before voting the bums out.

The naiveté, on the one hand, and the cynicism, on the other, are stunning in the proposal by Assemblywoman Shannon Grove and People's Advocate head Ted Costa.

Yes, people are frustrated with the apparent inability of lawmakers to grapple with the big challenges of our time – from a changing economy to an increasingly diverse population to aging infrastructure.

But weakening the legislative branch yet again, by some of the same folks who brought us term limits, is simply an attack on representative democracy.

Pia Lopez: No

Ben, I'm surprised that you've fallen for this nonsense.

Going to a part-time Legislature that meets 95 days a year and gets paid $18,000 would have some very predictable effects:

• More power to the full-time governor, to the unelected full-time bureaucracy, and to full-time organized special interests and their lobbyists.

• Only people with money and leisure time could serve – or people being funded by some interest. Who else has jobs that would allow them to take off three months of the year for low-paid public service and still earn a decent living?

• Special session after special session. Legislators trying to deal with highly complex issues in a state of 37.3 million within three months (no, the complexity doesn't disappear) will certainly miss deadlines for adjournment. Remember the serial special sessions of the 1960s? That was a major reason voters in 1966 voted overwhelmingly to switch from a part-time to a full-time Legislature.

• Less time for legislators to build the expertise and political relationships needed to forge compromises and solutions to very complex problems.

Ben, surely you know that passing silly laws doesn't take much time or study – but dealing with big stuff does. Limit the Legislature to 95 days and I predict you will get more useless laws, not fewer – and the important matters will get pushed farther and farther down the road.

Hey, why not get rid of the Legislature altogether to save money? Who needs representative democracy anyway? Why not just take public opinion polls to decide public policy and budgets? Or have voters decide matters at the ballot box through initiatives?

If you want legislators who spend more time with constituents, I have a better idea. Rethink the size of the Legislature. With the 2010 redistricting, 80 Assembly members each represent 465,674 people, a nearly impossible task; 40 Senate members each represent 931,349 people. The size of the Legislature hasn't changed since 1879, when the state had fewer than 1 million people.

In their lower houses, Texas and New York have 150 members, each representing fewer than 140,000 people. That's more manageable.

You want more accountability and accessibility, and less voter alienation? Change the size of the Legislature, rather than making it part time.

This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee

This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee