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California government reform proposals begin to take shape

Legislators are crafting dozens of plans to ease the budget process and shift state burdens to local agencies. Political groups may be waiting in the wings with ballot measures if the lawmakers fail.

August 19, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers tiptoed Tuesday into the roiling debate over how to overhaul California government.

With less than a month left in the legislative session, proponents of change urged a state Senate panel to quickly adopt ideas that have bipartisan support while continuing to push for solutions to tougher problems -- or risk having voters do it for them.

"It really comes down to a question of political will -- as opposed to political won't," said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a business-backed group that is pressing for a constitutional convention to let citizens draft a new blueprint for the way state government operates.

"Not only is California broke, it's broken," added Sunne Wright McPeak, a former Schwarzenegger administration official serving on the board of California Forward. That nonprofit foundation is pushing for more lawmaker accountability, a new budget-making process and a shift of more government responsibilities to the local level.

The three-hour hearing came as Sacramento lawmakers face plummeting approval ratings and growing momentum behind the fix-it movements. In addition to the proposals advocated by the Bay Area Council and California Forward, another group is circulating petitions for a ballot measure proposing a part-time Legislature.

Legislative leaders have heard the drum beat for change. More than three dozen bills to change state government are in the pipeline.

"I'm very excited about the prospect of moving forward on reform," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who in recent months has held brainstorming sessions with fellow lawmakers and has asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call a special session on remodeling California government.

Still, she vowed not to let her house be rushed into quick decisions, saying the Assembly would instead proceed in "a thoughtful manner on our own timeline."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said lawmakers need to focus on what they can achieve in the short term.

In particular, Steinberg wants to shift more government responsibilities and funding to counties and other local governments, and to adjust the initiative process to stop ballot-box budgeting.

Several experts told the Senate panel that lawmakers have had their hands tied by legal rulings, commitments made by past Legislatures and voter-approved initiatives that hamstring state spending.

California Forward last week dispatched a letter to Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders outlining an 11-point plan that includes proposals to realign more services to local governments, change term limits and reduce the state's two-thirds budget vote requirement to a simple majority.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area Council is considering sponsoring a ballot measure for next June's ballot proposing a constitutional convention.

Wunderman said he envisions a few hundred randomly selected responsible citizens meeting over the course of several months in a setting insulated from traditional statehouse special interests to craft improvements to state government.

But the group has expressed a willingness to suspend its push if the Legislature fixes its own problems.

"It would make my life a lot easier," Wunderman told the Senate panel.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.

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