Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Part-time Issue Leads to Full-time Headaches

Phoblog readers aren't strangers to my views on the (de)merits of a part-time legislature. As a semi-insider - or at least one who was inside for enough time to make me damn near a seasoned veteran in this post-term-limits era - I know full well the good and the bad that goes down under the dome.

This California Journal feature takes a thorough look at some of the lesser known controversies sure to arise from a effort to bring the part-time initiative to the ballot - namely, the legal headache of deciding whether such change amounts to a revision or an amendment.

"What the hell?" I can hear you say. Same thing. No, not exactly. This is California. More importantly, this is government, so nothing is ever obvious or even Webster-able. To really oversimplify - amendments tinker 'round the edges. Revisions fundamentally alter the structure of government - the balance of power between the branches. Though the article does an admirable job getting into the minutiae of this legal reasoning, it can't really answer the question.

I'm betting that should the courts adjudicate this question, their decisions will turn on whether there's a de jure shift of power between the branches. Obviously, to me anyway, there will be a de facto shift as the Executive Branch continues it's lumbering ascendancy. The practical outcome must be a stronger Executive. But the practical outcome and whatever outcome perceived by the courts seldom match up.

On the merits of the proposal itself:

"Of course I'm serious about it," Schwarzenegger told the California Journal. "I think there is [an] endless amount of bills that are created by legislators when they are not fully occupied with working challenges and serious challenges. And some of them are always occupied with serious challenges, especially the ones that are in charge of certain committees and stuff, they're working very hard. But there's others, you know, where it's better if they just go and take care of business and then go back to work, whatever they do."

Well, yeah, that's true, there's lots of crap that moves through the system. But to this argument, I offer a twist on sage advice: Hate the player, not the game. Redistricting reform (real reform, not Ted Costa sloppy reform, not this open primary mumbo jumbo that's already deceiving voters and journalists) could give us competitive districts and maybe even real leadership. Better players, better game.

And from the It's A Small World category:

Gary Kovall, a legal scholar and senior fellow at the The Rose Institute for State and Local Government, said changing the Legislature to part-time is both popular with the public and legally defensible as an amendment, and not a revision. Kovall has co-authored a definitive study on California's 1966 transition from part-time to full-time Legislature . . . .

. . . . Kovall proposes limiting the sessions, while maintaining bipartisan interim commission that would make recommendations for legislation, thus giving lawmakers a leg up on worthy bills. "In the interim, there's a lot of thought and research going on. It's kind of what Nevada does. Perhaps it's heretical to say we should look at Texas for anything... but they do well with a short session every other year. They get bills done and they take care of their state."

Full disclosure - I worked at the Rose for 3+ years in college and was its Student Manager my final year. I know Gary Kovall well (great singing voice, by the way). But I totally and completely disagree with him here. Natch.

A bipartisan interim commission? Are you kidding me? So much of the admin-heavy California rule and law making process is already in the hands of the invisible and unaccountable and now you want a commission? Nuh-uh. No way. I vote for people because I can un-vote for them later. I don't get to appoint the commission directly, I'm sure, so I don't get to fire them either. No deal.

How does creating a quasi-legislative, policy proposing body help establish a more efficient, effective California? It doesn't.

What about just slowing the stream of bad legislation?

Too, Schwarzenegger wants to limit the number of bills. Already, senators are limited to 50 bills each per session, and members of the Assembly to 40, although there are exceptions to the rules, and Democrats control the rules. Formally limiting individual bills is all but certain to expand the number of omnibus, complex "committee" bills and boost the power of the committee chairpersons who negotiate them. Since lawmakers have two constitutional duties, write bills and vote on them, would a bill limitation comprise a constitutional revision?

I've said that before. I think members should get 5 bills and lose 2 for each dumb one they introduce (if they get into negative bills, that means they have to repeal stupid ones already passed). Who decides which are dumb? I don't know. Jon Stewart? Me? I don't have anything after August '05 . . . .

I hadn't thought about the revision angle on the bill limitation question - interesting.

Yes, the wiley legislature would surely turn to committee bills and we'd begin seeing omnibus, US Congress-like, proposals. That would be bad.

The best first step reforms all derive from a better mapping plan. With redistricting reform comes competition. With competition - hypothetically, anyway - comes better, stronger leadership. Stronger leaders can whip members into shape internally, thereby easing the threat of reforms surrounded by the specter of unintended consequences.

And getting rid of term limits would help tremendously. Or at least changing the current scheme. But that won't happen until the Legislature proves itself to the public and earns back their trust. I don't know if that's possible, but I like to think it is.

So read this California Journal piece and post your thoughts.

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