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Saturday, Feb 4, 2023

How Realistic is a Part-Time Legislature?

Understandably, there is a lot of talk in political circles about bringing back a part-time legislature. I can appreciate the sentiment. After all, the budget seems to always be in a deficit, and the important policy issues such as water and transportation never seem to get resolved (although I have not yet given up hope). As unemployment rates and taxes have increased this year, people are upset. Who wouldn’t be? California is in a deep mess, and not enough of our legislators share the voters’ sense of frustration, if not downright outrage. So, a growing group of activists and politicians is calling for California to return to a part-time legislature for the first time since 1966 when voters approved Prop. 1A to establish our current system. Proponents are reportedly drafting a ballot initiative for 2010 that would shorten legislative sessions to just 90 days each year beginning in December, 2012. Of course nothing could be worse than what we have now, but since we all are passionate voters who fully evaluate the unintended consequences of each ballot initiative before we cast votes, let’s have an intellectually honest dialogue about how a part time legislature would realistically function. First, let’s agree that we already have a part-time legislature. If we subtracted the time spent on fund raising, commuting, and political strategizing from the actual hours most lawmakers spend on public policy and governance, it would probably amount on average to a few hours per day, rarely a full day in the 8-6 p.m. world most of us full-time workers put in. Now, let’s examine what would really happen with a part time legislature. Since California had a part-time legislature not too long ago, we can see how it worked up until 1966. Life in the real world Part-time legislature proponents contend that part-time legislators would have more time to experience real-life challenges such as running a business, hiring/firing employees, paying taxes, sitting in traffic, taking kids to school, etc., which ideally would better prepare them to make better decisions in Sacramento. Who wouldn’t want to see more “citizen legislators” in the State Capitol? Yes, this would probably happen for some legislators, but for most of them it wouldn’t work this way. You see, prior to 1966, it was not uncommon for employees of special interests to serve in the legislature in their spare time. Even more so today, special interests are plentiful in California, and they have more resources than ever before. Since financial resources get candidates elected and access to financial resources determines the frontrunners, it should come as no surprise that the people with the most access to special interests’ resources are those that work for special interests. I can easily imagine a legislature of 120 “citizen lawmakers,” each of whom works part time for a special interest or entities with business before the state legislature, each with a narrow focus on one particular issue and less objective on others than what we have today. State too big Now for the practical reason why we’ll never have a part-time legislature even if voters approve it: for better or for worse, California is too big and too complicated for it not to have a full-time legislature, no matter what we call it. Voters expect government to act, and if the legislature is not in session for nine months while disasters occur, we expect action. I suspect that the drafters of the part-time legislature initiative will probably include provisions for special sessions to address such disasters. And therein lies the problem. California is disaster prone (earthquakes, fires, droughts, floods and recessions) so there will almost always be a need for special sessions. Let’s not forget that some legislators won’t be able to afford missing workdays at their “real” jobs, which would inspire some heavy handed tactics we sometimes see in Sacramento. Most of us, I think, would like to see more citizen legislators get elected, legislators who bring real life experiences that reflect the challenges of ordinary Californians. Therefore, it might be more strategic if we pursued initiatives that made it easier for such candidates to get elected as opposed to running against insurmountable odds that favor incumbents and those with all the resources. Brendan Huffman is a Valley-based consultant specializing in issue advocacy and association management. His web site is www.HuffmanPA.com.

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