In June, several California legislators complained about having their pay cut by State Controller John Chiang because the budget they submitted by the June 15 constitutional deadline — the only deadline they seem to care about — was unbalanced. This latest budget drama shows why California needs a part-time legislature.
Since the late 1960s — the last time California had a part-time legislature — few budgets have been balanced before the constitutional deadline. In the past 24 years, only one budget met both criteria, the 1999-2000 budget during the dot-com boom, when the state was briefly flush with cash from the capital gains tax.
Since 2001, there have been 19 different constitutional amendments proposing a part-time legislature for California or dramatic change in the way the legislature operates. But none of the bills ever got the committee hearing they deserved. As recently as 2009-10, there were eight different constitutional amendments proposed, all of which shriveled on the vine.
Technically, all 19 of the bills are “pending referral” to a committee — an abuse of the process that is supposed to belong to the people. But this is the fate of many bills, particularly those seeking to change the legislative process.
The time is ripe for either a part-time legislature or at least one required to do nothing other than work on a budget for one year until it is passed.
The states with full-time legislatures — California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — have all suffered massive budget deficits, out-of-control public employee unions and unfunded public employee pensions. On the other hand, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming operate with a part-time legislature. These states are either headed for recovery or working responsibly to clean up a public employee pension and budget mess. Also working well are Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. These states feature “hybrid” legislatures that include both part-time and full-time aspects. The Texas Legislature meets only 60 days every two years, as do the legislatures in 12 other states, including New Hampshire, North and South Dakota, Georgia and Idaho.
In California, even just neutering the legislature — cutting the time it spends in Sacramento — would surely help.
Many people argue that the more time the legislature is not in session, the less damage legislators can inflict upon California’s taxpayers. While this has been a popular theme among voters, it is not popular among many legislators.
With Proposition 25 in force, legislators could easily have passed a balanced budget by the June 15 pay cutoff. But instead of running the state in a responsible manner, they whine about not receiving paychecks. That condition remains all too familiar with California’s private-sector taxpayers, weary of footing the bills while being threatened with more tax increases every budget year.
And now instead of passing tax bills, which lawmakers know they don’t have the votes for, they are passing more regulations, which will only serve to cripple the state’s remaining businesses. Could California legislators inflict any more damage than they already have? Yes — unless the people neuter them first.
Katy Grimes is CalWatchdog’s Capitol reporter.