Legislature, Heal Thyself

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Listening to today's news conference from legislative leaders announcing a package of proposals to fix the dysfunction that permeates the state Capitol brought to mind those late night TV commercials for incredible whiz bang products, where after you're offered more items for a low price than you could ever imagine, the announcer always says, "But wait, there's more!"

Government reform? But wait, there's more!

The package unveiled today, a long list of constitutional reforms of state and local government as well as changes in the operation of the Legislature, was described by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez as a "unique opportunity" for fixing the many things wrong with the state's system of governance. They were joined at the event by Bob Hertzberg, the former Assembly speaker and current co-chair of the reform group California Forward. Many, if not most, of the ideas, came from California Forward.

The proposals that will garner the most news attention today: a majority vote for the state budget; no legislator salary or per diem payments if the budget isn't approved by June 25; and authority for the governor to cut programs if the Legislature doesn't act on a fiscal emergency within the existing mandate of 45 days.

"We all know," said Steinberg, "that California's system of state and local government finance is broken." Nonetheless, it's clear the package is not quite fully cooked and both leaders said that's why legislative hearings on the proposals will begin soon.

Perhaps those hearings will answer questions like: can legislators' salaries really be rescinded if they miss the budget deadline? You may remember that exact same idea was one of the original budget demands in 2009 by Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), but was dropped after attorneys said it was likely unconstitutional. Also somewhat unclear is what threshold legislators would have to meet with a fiscal emergency "fix" to avoid a governor coming in and having absolute authority to reduce spending... the same kind of power that was criticized when it was contained in Governor Schwarzenegger's Proposition 76 in 2005.

Other reforms in the package, which is expected to be four legislative bills and perhaps a single ballot measure created as a constitutional revision, would change governance issues on the local level -- including the power for voters in any county to approve a one cent 10-year sales tax hike if elected officials adopt a "countywide strategic action plan." Half of the new cash would be given to local schools. The full plan, though, isn't popular with everyone in local government circles, with some suggesting today that a better strategy would be for everyone to line up behind an initiative already in circulation to ban any more raids on local and transportation funds.

Conspicuously absent at the event: Republicans. GOP legislative leaders later said they're opposed to things like, not surprisingly, a majority vote budget. And while the Democratic/California Forward event touted a plan to make some fee increases subject to a supermajority legislative vote, an initiative now on the street collecting signatures would go much further on the issue of fee inceases, changing the so-called 'Sinclair Fee' rules, which California Forward decided to avoid.

In the end, what may have really happened today may was an agreement to enact a limited set of changes to the legislative process (like the new limits on bills a legislator can author) while only committing to a discussion of the other -- much bigger -- changes.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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