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Op-Ed

The late, great California Legislature

Ours was once a showcase among state governments, but we reformed ourselves into a mess.

April 19, 2011|By Larry Levine

It may seem hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the California Legislature was a showcase among state political bodies.

Through much of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the committee hearing rooms and the floors of the Assembly and state Senate were alive with stimulating deliberation on the issues. California legislation became the model for laws in other states, and California legislators became such experts in policy areas that they were sought-after for consultation across the nation.

So where did it all come apart? The answer: We reformed our way into this mess.

It started with Proposition 13 in 1978, which was sold to the public as a way to fix the very real problem of rapidly rising property tax bills. All the public needed to know to pass Proposition 13 was that it put a lid on property tax increases. But hidden in the measure were provisions that had little or nothing to do with property taxes and would end up debilitating state and local governments, including one provision that requires a two-thirds majority to increase state taxes. This means that as few as 14 members (that's one-third of the Senate) of the 120-member Legislature could stymie the will of the other 106.

Whose fault was it?

Proposition 13 sponsor Howard Jarvis and his minions must carry a heavy portion of the blame. They went far beyond dealing with the actual problem. Democrats, who controlled both houses and the governor's office, carry some of the responsibility. Their base constituencies — senior citizens and working families — were being hurt the most. But instead of crafting a solution, they waited until Jarvis qualified Proposition 13. Then they rushed a rival measure to the ballot, where it was defeated by voters who looked at it as a trick to undermine Proposition 13.

The next culprit is the term-limits initiative passed by voters in 1990. You cannot get long-term vision and planning from short-term people. In the Assembly, one-third of the members — those with the most experience and knowledge — are termed out every two years. This assures constant instability. Members no longer have time to become expert in particular policy areas or to develop trust in their colleagues on policy matters.

A successful legislature requires leaders who can stand up to interest groups, force competing interests to deal with each other and assert the discipline required to enforce compromise. With term limits, leaders aren't around long enough to earn and develop that strength and ability.

The third contributor to the decline of the Legislature is campaign contribution limits. Restricted in the amounts they can raise from individual donors, candidates of both parties are driven straight into the arms of interest groups in Sacramento. Those groups always have participated in funding campaigns for state office, but contribution limits changed how they do it.

Funding caps created the phenomenon of independent expenditures, which allow organizations or individuals that want to support a candidate beyond the restrictions of contribution limits to spend unlimited amounts, as long as they don't coordinate with the candidate's campaign.

Before voters approved contribution limits as part of Proposition 208 in 1996 there were no independent expenditures in state elections. In the one campaign run while Proposition 208 was in effect — a special election for Assembly — independent expenditures in support of the winner were greater than the combined budgets of the next three candidates, according to campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state.

In 1998, a federal court ruled Proposition 208 unconstitutional. In the next election, there were no independent expenditures in support of any candidate for state office. But in 2000, voters enacted new contribution limits as part of Proposition 34. Independent expenditures returned and have become a runaway monster in campaigns. Committees that collect and disburse these funds often use deceptive, high-sounding names to shield from public scrutiny the true level of indirect support a candidate is receiving from a particular group. It is not unusual for an interest group to make a campaign contribution of say, $3,000 and then pony up $100,000 for the same candidate through an independent expenditure operation.

How do we get out of this mess? We reform our way out, or more precisely, we unreform our way out.

Repeal the parts of Proposition 13 that require a two-thirds vote for any tax increase.

Stop depriving the majority in the Legislature of the ability to raise revenue for needed state services. The two-thirds provision has nothing to do with property taxes, which are imposed at the local level. The majority has the responsibility for governing; give them the authority. If they do a good job, let them have the credit. If they mess up, there will be plenty of people around to assign the blame, and citizens can vote them out.

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