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A Return to Sacramento's Bad Old Days

Schwarzenegger's call for a part-time Legislature ignores history.

August 03, 2004|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky, a former Times columnist and city editor, is writing a biography of Jesse Unruh, to be published by the University of California Press.

Soon after a young Los Angeles businessman, Tom Rees, was elected to the state Assembly in 1954, he got a visit from a beer lobbyist. A fight was underway for who would be Assembly speaker in the coming year. Rees backed the reform candidate, but his visitor wanted him to change his mind.

"He was a real old-time lobbyist," Rees, who died this year, recalled in an oral history compiled by the University of California. "He really looked like a lobbyist.... He had these jowls, this soulful look and these big, bug eyes that would stare at you. He said

The unsuccessful bribe attempt illustrated a sordid but not uncommon fact of life in the old part-time Legislature, where low pay, weak campaign reporting laws and a long-standing, little-questioned tradition of taking handouts from lobbyists created an atmosphere of sleaze. The Legislature in those days was widely known as a shabby institution, yet now -- with his proposals to make legislators part time again -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to want to restore it to its prior condition.

A part-time Legislature like the one California had from 1850 to 1966 meant that members of the Assembly and the Senate held other jobs (they were often lawyers, or in many cases businessmen) and would go to Sacramento for only a small part of every other year to pass laws and vote on budgets. When the session was in recess, they went home to their jobs.

For many years, this seemed a perfectly reasonable way to do business. The state was small, its budgets weren't enormous, the machinery of government wasn't all that complicated. Most states across the country had part-time legislatures.

But over time, as government grew larger and more sophisticated, the old system stopped making sense.

When Jesse M. Unruh arrived in Sacramento in 1954, he was appalled by the sleaziness he found. He was troubled by his low pay -- $500 a month for a six-month general session in odd numbered years. He was offended by the way the lobbyists who passed out cash also selected the legislative leadership and wrote the major bills. And he felt that the governor's office and lobbyists were riding roughshod over part-time lawmakers.

At first, Unruh lived in a room at the Elks Club near the Capitol during sessions. On rare occasions his family visited him. "We would put a pallet down on the floor," he said. When the session adjourned, he returned to his job of counting freight cars in the Los Angeles railroad yards.

When Unruh became a power, the famed "Big Daddy" of the Legislature, he vowed to change the system.

As Assembly speaker (a post he held from 1961 to 1969), he began by expanding the staff, hiring smart young men and women skilled in research and politics who would be capable of dealing with the complexities of post-World War II California. When Gov. Pat Brown's administration proposed building additional state hospitals to reduce a waiting list of 3,000 retarded children, the Assembly staff wrote a better alternative, permitting kids and adults to be cared for, or to work, in their home communities.

Unruh was also determined to make the Legislature full time and to give the lawmakers more staff and a pay raise. He argued that the plan would create a professional Legislature that could serve as a balance to the governor's power. The press and public were hostile to the idea, but Unruh countered with a brilliant strategy, burying the proposal in a ballot measure overhauling the state Constitution. The ballot measure was popular overall; the League of Women Voters supported it. Unruh persuaded the candidates for governor, Ronald Reagan and Brown, to endorse the plan. He got every special- interest lobbyist in the Capitol to finance a campaign with the slogan "Update the State. Vote Yes on 1-A." The measure passed in 1966 by a substantial margin, and the full-time Legislature passed along with it.

Of course, it's no secret that today's system is imperfect too. Modern-day campaign contributions are every bit as corrupting as the $100 bills pushed across Rees' desk half a century ago. What's more, term limits have badly weakened legislative power and competence.

But if Schwarzenegger were to succeed at returning the Legislature to its part-time status, matters would get even worse. The Assembly and Senate would be dramatically weakened. Business and labor interests that call the shots in Sacramento would quickly turn their attention to the governor and his sprawling, faceless bureaucracy. There would be one-stop shopping for the lobbyists -- in the office of the governor, who would rapidly become the only real boss in Sacramento.

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