Dysfunctional, gridlocked and partisan are all common descriptions of the California State Legislature. The intense fight over the budget along with the dragged out battle over water reform just highlighted the problems of the legislative body.
What the California Legislature needs is reform that will improve its performance in the future. There is a way to do this while also cutting the costs of operation. California’s legislature should be a part time body.
The idea of having a part time body is not entirely radical – in fact, many states have part time legislative bodies. Many of these states have balanced budgets, effective state services and high quality public education.
California has had a “professional” legislature since the mid-1960s. The original change from part-time to full-time seemed reasonable. A state with a very large population might be better served by a legislative body that can focus on the job of governing all year round instead of having other responsibilities. The salary of each legislator would be drastically increased in order to limit the influence of lobbyists.
What citizens must ask is whether the change has actually improved the function of California’s legislature or fixed the problems it was intended to solve. Over time it has become quite clear that the answer is no.
Since the changes made in the 1960s, the legislature has become increasingly polarized. This has occurred to a far greater extent than in the population as a whole, suggesting that the full-time schedule has led to increased partisanship. While some polarization is normal, the extreme partisanship of the current legislative body often cripples the possibility for a much-needed bill to pass.
Even though one of the main goals of making the legislature professional was to decrease the power of lobbyists, there are still enormous numbers of them in Sacramento. Now these lobbyists have the attention of our elected officials all year round. Lobbyists and special interest groups can still greatly influence elections through campaign contributions. This is not just a problem in California, but has plagued national politics as well. Having a full time legislature has not stopped lobbyists from influencing the political process. A part time legislature will at least ensure that legislators can be somewhere other than where the greatest number of lobbyists is concentrated.
The size of the state of California does not necessitate having a full time legislature. Many large states, such as Virginia and Texas have part time legislatures. These states save an enormous amount of money on administrative costs because they don’t have to pay the legislature to work all year long. This money saved can either go into other parts of the budget-like education and infrastructure-or it can stay in the pockets of taxpayers.
A petition being circulated by Citizens for California Reform would limit the legislature’s time in Sacramento to about 90 days. During the rest of the year the candidates may return to their districts. This would give them more time to interact directly with constituents and would make them more responsive to the concerns and needs of the people.
The current dysfunction in the California State Legislature can’t be completely or immediately solved. Long-term structural reforms like a part-time legislature will, however, put this state on a path to future legislative success and a better functioning government.
The part time nature of the legislature will bring in a greater diversity of potential candidates who are not just career politicians. Our government needs to be shaken up, and bringing in people with different ideas and life experiences will make the legislature less partisan, more responsive and will cost us a lot less.
Our representatives will have to work harder and longer at their jobs when in Sacramento, but hard work should be expected from people who are trusted and chosen to serve us.
JARRETT STEPMAN works part time, goes to classes and writes for his school’s newspaper. He thinks that many of his elected officials should be expected to have other responsibilities and experiences besides working in Sacramento. You can send your comments to him at email@example.com.