Part-Time Legislature? Not This Year

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The proposed initiative to rescind California's 44-year-old full time Legislature dies an official death today. But given the low esteem in which the institution is held by voters, the news is less a cause for celebration by legislators... as perhaps a collective sigh of relief that a potentially lethal bullet was dodged.

"We were unable to collect enough signatures," said the initiative's author, Gabriella Holt, in an email this afternoon. Holt and the political group behind the measure needed to gather 694,354 valid voter signatures in order to qualify for the November ballot.

The backers of the part-time Legislature measure (read it here) were never able to raise much money for the initiative, certainly nowhere near what it takes to get a measure on the ballot these days. That lack of enthusiasm in fundraising circles comes in the face of overwhelming evidence that Californians aren't too keen on the job the Legislature is doing these days. The latest statewide poll shows the body's job approval rating at an anemic 9 percent.

Had a wealthy donor stepped forward and provided the $2 million or so it would've taken to get the measure on the November ballot, it would've garnered an awful lot of attention -- even without a well-funded campaign. Both GOP gubernatorial candidates, for example, support some version of the idea.

But that never happened. And the political committee pushing the initiative has moved on to other endeavors, raising money from interest groups to support or oppose individual candidates for office. "Government reform that will improve the political and economic climate in California, including a part time citizen legislature, will remain a priority," said Holt.

The political opponents of the measure were quick to dance on its grave today. "The failure of this initiative is another example that the politics of anger is more bark than bite," wrote Democratic politico Steve Maviglio in an email. "Voters want to make the Legislature work, not punish it."

Perhaps, but voter anger at legislators is obvious at every turn... and may be used to further other causes. Take, for example, a well-funded measure this year to lower the budget vote to a simple legislative majority. As an incentive to voters leery of such a change, the proposal includes a provision stripping pols of their paychecks if they fail to approve a budget on time.

As mentioned in our story this morning on the history of governance reform, it was a 1966 ballot measure that turned the Legislature into a year-round operation, a change that remains one of the legacies of the late Assembly speaker, Jesse Unruh. Legislators, while recently having their pay reduced, are still the best paid in America. And even legislative leaders are leading an effort at reforming the institution, an obvious nod to voter frustration with business as usual under the Capitol dome.

Holt didn't say whether she intends to resubmit the initiative... and if so, when. But others could easily rekindle the effort for the 2012 election cycle. And no doubt what happens in Sacramento after this year's election will have real bearing on that decision.

Interestingly enough, today's news landed quietly at the statehouse; the Legislature is on spring break until April 5.

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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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