Jewish World Review April 20, 2004 / 30 Nisan, 5764
John H. Fund
Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks making laws should be a part-time job. He's right
So far he appears to be doing just that. Although he stumbled in his early weeks in office by failing to secure approval of a tough cap on state spending, lately he has moved from success to success, culminating in last Friday's passage of a law reforming the state's dysfunctional system for compensating workers who are injured on the job. The Democratic Legislature was forced to compromise after Mr. Schwarzenegger's supporters had collected 1.2 million signatures to put an even tougher reform on the November ballot.
"They had a gun to our head," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a very liberal Los Angeles Democrat. "They took hostages, and they promised to start shooting. A lot of members said, 'I don't want them to start shooting.' "
More-neutral observers would say that the governor was merely playing political hardball, pitting his ability to persuade California voters to pass controversial initiatives against that of a Legislature that a Public Policy Institute poll found last year could convince only 21% of voters that it did the right thing all or most of the time. After last month's primary, in which Mr. Schwarzenegger's support was able to lift to victory a massive bond measure that gave the state breathing room to address its huge budget deficit, few Democrats were willing to politically arm-wrestle the new chief executive.
Last month, when it appeared as if the legislators would balk at a compromise on workers' compensation reform, Gov. Schwarzenegger let it be known he has another missile ready to launch against them if they continue to frustrate his reform agenda. While on vacation in Hawaii, he picked up on an idea he first supported when he met with a group of Huntington Beach businessmen in a campaign swing last August. "I want to make the Legislature a part-time legislature," he told the Los Angeles Times.
He noted that only three other states have full-time lawmakers (Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania), and that the Legislature too often gets into mischief. "Spending so much time in Sacramento, without anything to do, then out of that comes strange bills. I like them when they're scrambling and they really have to work hard. Give them a short period of time. Then good work gets done, rather than hanging. That's when they start getting creative with things."
Legislators would argue that most of the 5,000 bills they consider every year serve clear public purposes, and that it's a cheap shot to trivialize their work by citing rogue proposals to regulate the size of children's backpacks, control the amount of water a dishwasher can use, or prohibit the declawing of exotic cats. Indeed, the Legislature is about to debate whether to incorporate feng shui, the Chinese art of spiritual harmony, into state building codes. Political wags say the only good news about this proposal is, if it is adopted, it will probably result in the Capitol being closed down, since the building's chi is way out of whack.
Trivia aside, Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee notes that California's full-time legislators "keep themselves busy stirring up trouble between optometrists and ophthalmologists, or dentists and hygienists, with regular fights over professional and commercial turf. Or diving into the arcanity of the rental-car industry."
Why are full-time legislators such busybodies? Assemblyman Ray Haynes, a Riverside County Republican, is known as the Legislature's resident cynic which means he's more candid than his colleagues. "Politics is all about getting and keeping power, and in politics, the professionals in the business soon learn that the only way to get and keep power is to force people to talk to them," he says. "A full-time legislature thinks of more and more things to regulate and discuss. As a result, the 'strange bills' the governor describes keep popping up, and taking up the time of those of us who think that people would be better served if the government just left them alone."
Naturally, other legislators violently disagree with both Mr. Haynes's analysis and Mr. Schwarzenegger's sudden interest in a part-time legislature. "While I'm working my ass off, he's pontificating from Hawaii?" snarled Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco. Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a moderate Democrat, warned that "if you make [the Legislature] part-time, I think you will get a group of people that are even less focused on real public policy."
That's debatable, but it's true enough that the old part-time Legislature that Californians voted to abandon in 1966 was filled mostly with people who could afford to take off 120 days a year from their obligations. That often meant retirees, lawyers or union bosses groups not exactly representative of the state's population.
Still, Bob Monagan, a Republican who served as speaker of the Assembly from 1968 to 1970, says from his observation a full-time legislature "is not a very good idea." He says legislators would be far better off spending more time at home talking with constituents than in Sacramento, "listening to lobbyists all the time." Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan's former attorney general, told me that both he and Mr. Reagan had concluded they had made a mistake supporting the full-time legislature when Mr. Reagan first ran for governor in 1966.
Of course, the debate over a part-time legislature is not just about its effect on public policy but its political potency. Everyone knows that state legislators relish the $100,000-a-year salary they receive as well as such perks like a state car and a generous retirement system. If other states are a guide, creating a part-time legislature would drop the value of that package by at least half. In addition, full-time state legislatures have an average of nine staffers per legislator, compared with 1.2 in part-time states. No wonder California legislators are nervous when the governor muses about their future work rules.
Everyone under the Capitol dome knows that if Mr. Schwarzenegger decided to really push for a part-time legislature he would be tapping into a rich vein of public frustration. "He could pass an initiative," says Bob Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank. "He could get 60%. It would pass easily."
That's why state legislators and liberal special interest groups alike are far more nervous than they are letting on about the governor's comments. Returning the Legislature to part-time duty status would shift power to the executive branch and give a strong governor an even stronger hand in shaping the legislative agenda. That has political implications. Republicans have controlled at least one house of the state Legislature in California for only three years out of the past 38. During the same period they have controlled the governor's office for 25 years.
"You can bet that to avoid an initiative kicking them to the back of the public policy bus they will be willing to be more cooperative with the governor now," one Democratic former state legislator. "He is holding the whip hand as this workers' comp victory by him proves."
Mr. Schwarzenegger's clout with voters is one reason why Democrats are so anxious to force the governor to retreat on his opposition to higher taxes, the only surefire way they know to erode his credibility.
Last October, after Californians elected him governor by a landslide, Arnold Schwarzenegger told the crowd at his election-night rally, "For the people to win, politics as usual must lose." So far he has the status quo politicians pinned to the wall, and the idea he has floated about a part-time legislature is just his latest tactical move to keep them on the defensive. If he is able to avoid raising taxes, there's no reason he can't continue moving from success to success.
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