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Running California isn't a part-time job

June 05, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • Ted Costa, pictured in 2003 during his successful campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis, is now out to make the Legislature a part-time body.
Ted Costa, pictured in 2003 during his successful campaign to recall Gov.… (Los Angeles Times )

Voters are avoiding the polls in droves Tuesday, probably because it's hard to get too excited about a measure to tweak legislative term limits or choose a presidential candidate in a primary whose outcome has already been decided. Things should heat up in November, but there's at least one hot-button issue that won't be appearing on the ballot: an initiative to turn California's Legislature into a part-time body.

Ted Costa of People's Advocate, who led the successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis, has been trying since 2004 to mount an initiative that would cut the legislative session to three months a year and slash lawmakers' pay. On Tuesday, he announced the end of his campaign's paid signature-gathering effort, which means he has essentially given up trying to obtain the 800,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. According to the Sacramento Bee, the campaign had collected 300,000 to 400,000 signatures but was running out of money and seemed unlikely to meet the July 2 deadline for getting on the November ballot.

The time for Costa's initiative may not have come, but he plans to refile it with the state, perhaps for a vote in 2014. He would be wiser to take his repeated failures as a sign that the proposal has little support and should be dropped. It's not a good idea.

California had a part-time Legislature until 1966, when voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the state Constitution to create the current year-round body. The switch was endorsed by the gubernatorial candidates from both parties, Ronald Reagan and Pat Brown, even though one key impact was to make the governor's office less powerful. But even in 1966, when the state's population was a fraction of its current size, it was apparent that California was too big to be governed by a Legislature meeting only a few months a year. There was so much pressing business to deal with that lawmakers were continually forced to call special sessions that ran months past the intended end date of the legislative session, which rendered the term "part-time" sort of meaningless.

Conservatives like Costa are enamored of the idea of a part-time Legislature because they think it would put citizen lawmakers rather than professional politicians in office and reduce the influence of special interests. They're right about the first part, sort of. Before 1966, state lawmakers were mostly lawyers and businessmen wealthy enough to spend several months in Sacramento away from their businesses. They were also often corrupt; today's lobbyists influence politicians with campaign contributions, but in those days they seem to have done it with naked bribes. A part-time Legislature would shift the balance of power massively toward the governor (which Costa and his friends might not like when Democrats such as Jerry Brown are in office) and would assure that lawmakers have little experience in government -- making them even more beholden to lobbyists and other special interests to craft laws than they are now.

California's Legislature is enormously unpopular, and for good reason. Giving it less time to do its job isn't the answer. Only the nation's smallest, most rural states have legislatures with sessions as sharply curtailed as Costa aims to make California's. What works in Wyoming won't work here.

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