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Schwarzenegger's Power Grab

Reform proposal would hand many key decisions to the governor's appointees.

August 09, 2004|Jody Freeman

The proposal to reorganize state government, unveiled last week, contains some elements that are reasonable and some that aren't. Most disturbing in the plan -- buried deep in the 2,500-page report -- is an agenda to bolster Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's grip on power.

As written, the plan would eliminate or convert about 100 of our independent boards and commissions into executive branch departments that report to the governor.

Traditionally, independent agencies are insulated from direct political influence. Appointees serve fixed terms. Unlike members of the Cabinet or heads of executive departments, they do not serve at the governor's pleasure. This means they cannot be fired until their terms expire. And some of them are appointed by the Legislature, which also balances the governor's power. As a result, these members are free to make policy decisions based on facts and experience, regardless of political fallout. Because many boards must hold public hearings, they are often more accessible to the public than executive agencies. And their independence gives them credibility.

If the recommendations made in the California Performance Review are adopted, we can expect to see changes to, as an example, the boards responsible for unemployment insurance and workers' compensation benefit appeals. Those functions would shift to a new Department of Labor and Development, headed by a secretary answering to the governor. Instead of neutral experts with practical experience adjudicating benefits awards, the final decisions about benefits awards, rules and policies would be made by a political appointee.

The plan would also eliminate the state Water Quality Control Board and the nine regional water boards that issue permits locally. These functions would be the responsibility of a new Department of Environmental Protection, under the governor's control.

In general, the California Performance Review reduces opportunities for public input and strengthens top-down control. Our governor already exercises more power when it comes to making laws than the president of the United States. This plan would further empower him by giving him nearly exclusive control over how those laws were implemented. Add his power over lawmaking to the enhanced power he seeks over law implementation and you have executive dominance.

Proposition 140, approved in 1990, weakened the power of legislators by creating term limits; they now have less expertise and influence. Proposition 140 also cut the size and pay of legislative committee staffs, whose job it is to analyze the effects of legislation. Without expert staffs to vet policy proposals, legislators are no match for the well-funded and experienced staff of the governor's office.

The governor appears to pursue more power at every opportunity. He recently proposed, for instance, that the Legislature revert to part-time status. This would leave even less time for sound analysis of public policy while conveniently weakening one of the chief rivals to gubernatorial power.

The California Constitution does provide some checks. It singles out specific offices, like the lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer, for direct election. These officials do not answer to the governor. The Constitution also authorizes the Legislature to appoint independent boards and commissions, which diffuses power. Neither constraint fazes this governor.

Against this background, the CPR's proposals to concentrate gubernatorial power are troubling. Certainly, the CPR contains many good ideas -- yes, we should eliminate agencies like the Integrated Waste Management Board, with cushy patronage appointments that pay members over $90,000 per year for part-time work, and, yes, it is smart to consolidate agencies that duplicate each other's functions, like the Board of Equalization and the Franchise Tax Board. And absolutely, government should make more services, such as driver's license renewals, available online.

But buried amid all these sensible reforms is the hidden agenda to expand the governor's reach. Certainly, there is room for improvement among many independent agencies, but it shouldn't come at the price of surrendering control to the governor. Don't let the innocuous name fool you. This "performance review" is, at least in part, a power grab.


Jody Freeman is a law professor at UCLA.

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