Cutting Lawmakers’ Time and Pay a Mistake

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It seems that every time California voters take aim at the legislature, they shoot themselves in the foot.

Think term limits. Even many who initially supported them admit that term limits have been a disaster.

And campaign financing reform initiatives haven’t staunched the flow of political money; they’ve mostly driven it farther from the sunlight.

We may have another potential misfire on next November’s ballot.

A constitutional amendment to jettison California’s full time legislature has been filed with the Attorney General’s Office.

Lawmakers would convene in January for 30 days, recess, and then reconvene in May for 60 days. Their pay will be cut from more than $7,940 per month to $1,500 a month, or $18,000 annually.

A quick look back shows us how a part-time legislature might work in real life.

“I can tell whether a man wants a baked potato, a girl or money,” boasted Arthur H. “Artie” Samish, arguably the most influential and powerful lobbyist in California’s history.

From the 1920s to the early 1950s, Samish used that simple formula to influence part-time lawmakers and successfully serve his clients’ interests in the State Capitol.

Back then the Legislature met every other year. In January of odd-numbered years, the houses convened to organize and introduce bills, then adjourned until March, when they considered legislation.

Lawmakers generally fled the Capitol in June or July, to escape the oppressive Sacramento heat. The legislature didn’t meet at all—except for special or budget sessions—in even numbered years.

Part-time legislators pulled down only $100/mo.

“Naturally,” Samish observed, “the legislators couldn’t live on twelve hundred a year. All had other sources of income…Some of the legislators augmented their income by outright bribes from some of my lobbying colleagues…There were other, strictly legal ways of adding to the income of lawmakers and simultaneously making them friendly to your own organization.”

There still are. And will be, whether or not the legislature meets full- time.

Second jobs will always have the potential of legislative conflicts of interest.

Men and women in their prime, unless they are independently wealthy, can't afford to live on a part-time salary. (New Jersey’s part-time legislature was known as “the cradle and the grave.”)

A report by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, “[b]eing a legislator doesn't just mean attending legislative sessions and voting on proposed laws. State legislators also spend large amounts of time assisting constituents, studying state issues during the interim and campaigning for election. These activities go on throughout the year.”

The rhythms of the legislative process won't change. Politics will remain a full-time gig.

Don’t let the “part-time” label fool you.

When Proposition 1A, approved by California voters in 1966, ushered in the “full-time legislature,” lawmakers already were in Sacramento most of each year, working through a plethora of “special sessions” (which still are allowed under the current initiative).

The part-time legislature had become a rubber stamp for the Administration, lobbyists and interest groups.
Analyzing “the real secret of Samish’s astounding political power,” historian Carey McWilliams wrote, “The power is really not in Artie; it is in a situation which he has learned to manipulate.”
In the end, a system is only as good as the people who inhabit it. And you can’t legislate human nature.

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