Friday, January 6, 2012





There’s a one-word cause for the gridlock that so often afflicts California government, where compromise is almost non-existent and very little is accomplished. That word: fear.

This implies if the political class had less to fear, its members might be more dedicated to getting things done and less preoccupied with protecting their self-interested hides.

Today's chief political fear of legislators from both major parties is that if they deviate from the party line, they will draw major opposition in the next primary election and quickly be ousted from cushy jobs which pay well into the six figures when per diem allowances and other perquisites are figured in.

That happened several times in recent years, especially to Republicans who voted for the temporary tax increases and budget compromises featured in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last few years as governor. It’s also happened on the national level, where several U.S. senators have been ousted by primary opponents for casting the occasional compromise vote.

Because there is no such thing as direct democracy on the national level, nothing is likely soon to change the current reality in Congress. But the initiative system does allow changes in Sacramento.

The first major effort to alter what politicians fear came in June 2010, when voters passed Proposition 14 and created the top-two system of primary elections which will see large-scale use for the first time this spring. Because all candidates will be listed together on the primary ballot regardless of party, with the two leading vote-getters advancing to the November general election, the theory is that moderates who have been outvoted for decades in both parties’ primaries might influence election outcomes far more than before.

The reasoning behind this theory is that neither Democrats nor Republicans need fear the extreme wings of their party anymore, since extremists on either side would be unlikely to make up a majority in many districts. The jury is still out on that theory.

But underlying all the concerns about drawing substantial primary opposition is the real worry: loss of the job itself, and the need to venture into the job market just like most other citizens.

Which leads to another theory: Remove the high stakes, the good pay and the many perks legislators now enjoy and maybe they will think as much about what’s good for California as what’s good for them.

This is the idea behind two pending proposed initiatives aiming to reduce the Legislature to the part-time status it had as recently as the 1950s.

Maybe, goes this thought, if lawmakers were paid no more than about $30,000 a year and were in session barely three months annually, getting reelected would no longer be their top concern.

One of the proposed measures is the so-called “Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act,” which would reduce state Assembly district populations to about 50,000 from today’s average of 483,000, producing thousands of so-called legislators whose main function would be to elect a “working committee” of 80 (same size as today’s Assembly) that would do the actual work.

That’s unwieldy enough to be completely impractical, so it probably won’t get very far.

But the other proposed initiative, this one put forward by longtime populist activist Ted Costa (he filed the original recall papers against ex-Gov. Gray Davis) makes more sense.

This one would also see lawmakers meet only three months a year, with lowered salaries part of the deal. There would be special sessions when called by the governor, but these could only deal with specific issues. And legislators could not hold state government employment or become paid lobbyists in Sacramento for five years after leaving office.

The main point, though, is that reelection might not matter as much if legislators got lower pay, less per diem money and had few prospects of staying on the government payroll after their terms are up. Their legislative duties also might interfere with the “real” jobs most would have to hold in order to make ends meet.

Says Costa, “California needs and deserves a Legislature that is closer to the people…and is only interested in conducting the people’s business.” Of course, nothing in his plan would prevent ambitious politicians from trying to use part-time legislative offices as stepping stones to something more.

And the idea that fewer rewards would lead to more compromise is completely untested. Balanced against it, too, is the fact that many state issues have become so complex that part-timers could easily be bamboozled by special interest lobbyists.

Still, a valid argument can be made for the idea that the full-time Legislature has failed and that the time has come to return to citizen legislators. At the very least, this is an idea that deserves substantial public airing. For something must be done to get things moving again in California government.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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