Jewish World Review April 20, 2004/ 30 Nissan, 5764
A terminating idea from California
The conceit of the California culture is that all golden trends, pacific or not, begin where the Pacific laps at the western shore of the continent. If that's true, here's some good news: There's a movement afoot, still tiny but loudly ticking, to cut the legislature down to size.
For starters, the man leading the movement wants to repeal the 38-year-old state law that decrees state legislating to be a full-time job. He wants legislators, who are paid $99,000 annually, to get a job and legislate part-time. Only three other states New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan have made legislating a full-time occupation. In the other 46 states, it only seems that way.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's most popular pol, has endorsed the idea, if not necessarily the specific legislation. It's not at all clear whether the Terminator intends to make termination of the full-time assembly a priority.
But the governor made waves, and hurt a few tender feelings, when he remarked the other day in Hawaii, where he was vacationing, that he thinks his legislature "already doesn't have enough to do." He told the Los Angeles Times: "I want to make the legislature a part-time legislature." He thinks the assemblypersons write "strange bills."
The governor's incredulity at "strange bills" probably belies his neophyte's experience in politics. Part-time legislating is no preventative for "strange bills." John Burton, the president pro-tem of the state Senate, was first elected to the legislature in 1964 when it was still a part-timer's paradise. He warns that just because legislators would be paid to put in fewer hours would not necessarily cut down on sloth and goofiness.
"The dumbest bill I've ever recalled was introduced during a part-time legislature," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It would have made committing suicide a misdemeanor." He recalled one bill that would have made being poor a crime. Only recently the California Legislature enacted a law prohibiting pet stores from selling parrots that have not been weaned.
California, full or part time, has had no monopoly on dumb bills. The Arkansas legislature once passed an annual "bachelor's occupational tax" on unmarried men over 21 with the proceeds designated to pay the welfare benefits for unmarried mothers. Only after several national newsmagazines, perhaps unfamiliar with the rustic traditions of Southern gallantry, led the howls of derisive laughter did the legislature back down.
When an investigation by the FBI led to the conviction and imprisonment of several California legislators for illegal fund raising (and spending) in the 1970s after the legislature went full-time the assembly became known as "the best legislature money can buy." This reflected mostly the effects of runaway inflation. Earl Long, "the late, great governor of the great state of Louisiana," once boasted that he "could take a hundred dollars and buy my legislature and have enough left over for a steak dinner."
Nevertheless, Jim Bouskos, a real-estate developer in Fresno, appears to be deadly serious about cutting the California Legislature down to the size of the rest of us.
He further seeks to cut out some of the expensive perks the legislators have given themselves, since they're at the mercy of a citizens committee that recommends raises in their $99,000 annual pay. The legislators get $140 a day for "expenses," leased automobiles, credit cards good for unlimited gasoline (in a state where the price of gasoline is closing in on $3 a gallon) and telephone calls and a ticket for an airline trip home and back once every week. Other goodies, such as office supplies, postage stamps, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, business meals and courier services make up hidden extras. The California Legislature may or may not be the best that money can buy, but at $200 million a year it's one of the most expensive. These worthies imagine they're as grand and as important as the city council of the District of Columbia, though none of the Californians, unlike their District counterparts, have yet thought of exempting themselves from the laws they enact for everyone else.
Mr. Bouskos, who was a member of a state commission assigned to oversight of state agencies nearly a quarter of a century ago, once figured on putting his initiative on the ballot this year, but gave up trying to obtain the 600,000 signatures. He hadn't got much traction in the newspapers and newscasts in the crucial Southern California media
markets and couldn't afford the cost of such a signature campaign.
The Terminator gave his crusade an unanticipated boost, so who knows? Once it catches fire here, the movement may be coming soon to a legislature near you. We can hope.
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