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CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE SKELTON

Full-Time Jobs, Part-Time Accomplishments

September 08, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — This is the 30th anniversary of California's Legislature going "full-time"--of it becoming "professionalized." I haven't heard of anybody celebrating.

In fact, there is increasing talk that maybe this institution should regress to its "part-time," more productive status--back to the amateur era when it managed to pass bills, for example, that led to world-class water, highway and higher education systems.

"Based on the way we're working right now, we ought to go back to a part-time Legislature because we're only working part-time," says Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno).

First elected in 1970, during the full-time Legislature's robust youth, Maddy fondly recalls that "I was here in the good times when we were rated the best Legislature in the country."

Two years ago, Maddy was ousted as Senate minority leader by Republicans who thought he lacked the political killer instinct--the partisanship-over-pragmatism ethic that has become an ugly characteristic of this deteriorating body.

One respected longtime lobbyist commented: "I defy you to find one person involved with creating a full-time Legislature who won't tell you they made a mistake. The argument was that we're going to have a professional Legislature. If you can find it, please give me a call."

It was here once, but slowly crept away, finally getting the boot with term limits. That 1990 ballot initiative didn't only kick out veteran lawmakers and replace them with inexperienced rookies--albeit of better quality in some cases--it dramatically drained the expert, professional staff.

The Legislature still will cost taxpayers $149.5 million this budget year.

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It was the most recent budget fiasco that has revived calls for reconsidering a part-time operation--of padlocking the chambers on, say, July 1 and forcing lawmakers to return home to mingle with real folk. Maybe get an earful.

The $68-billion state budget didn't get signed until seven weeks past the start of the new fiscal year. It's the seventh year in the past 10 that the July 1 deadline has been missed. Lawmakers equate this dereliction of duty with a victimless crime. But, in truth, there are many victims: The vendors who sell to the state and this summer got stiffed $556 million while the Capitol procrastinated.

This week we'll see a stark contrast from the norm. It's the final meeting week of the year and legislators will be hustling, dealing and working nights to get their bills passed.

Too bad they can't recapture the weeks of time wasted--particularly in the Assembly--on incessant party caucuses, debating meaningless resolutions and memorializing deceased constituents. Let alone, just hanging around to collect $105 in daily expense allowance, on top of the pay that in December will rise to $78,624 annually.

"The Legislature should adjourn each year on July 1. Period," wrote former Assembly GOP Leader Robert Monagan in a 1990 book, "The Disappearance of Representative Government." Monagan served in the part-time Legislature that met for six months one year and only three the next. He pushed for a full-time body and also served in it, but later conceded: "The business of the Legislature will consume whatever time is allotted."

Legendary Speaker Jesse Unruh led the fight for full-time, arguing that the legislative branch should be upgraded to the same professional level as the executive. But I was convinced then--and still am--that the driving motivation for most lawmakers was the promised near-tripling of their salaries, from $6,000 to $16,000.

Voters bought the Legislature's Proposition 1-a by a 3-1 margin.

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Last year, a blue-ribbon California Constitution Revision Commission proposed an ambitious package of government reforms, including a one-house Legislature that knocks off each year after six months.

Legislators ignored the commission's report, didn't even discuss it. I figured the plan lacked two components needed to get their attention--a hefty salary hike and an appeal to special interests that dangle campaign contributions.

Assembly GOP Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino says the Legislature should cut back its regular session and spend more time on government oversight and developing substantive bills.

Veteran Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) asserts that as long as the governor and lobbyists operate full-time, so should the Legislature. But, he agrees, "we could start a little faster" on the budget.

California is one of 10 states with a full-time Legislature. With our size and diversity, we do need one.

But we don't need this. It's broke and needs fixin', preferably by the Legislature itself. Spare us another initiative.

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