By Nick Diamantides
What if the citizens of California rose up and fired everybody in the state senate and assembly? An undertaking of that magnitude would take 120 separate recall referendums, and that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. However, a group calling itself Citizens for California Reform (CCR) has come up with a proposition that could drastically change the way the state legislature operates while making it far less attractive to the professional, career politicians.
CCR’s proposition, called the Citizen Legislature Act, is a constitutional amendment initiative to return the full-time legislature to a part-time legislature, as it had been prior to 1966. Last Saturday, Gabriella Holt, chief executive officer of CCR, spoke during a breakfast meeting hosted by the Long Beach Chapter of Republican Women, to explain the purpose of the initiative. About 25 people came to the breakfast.
Holt, who ran unsuccessfully for the 54th Distinct Assembly Seat last year, explained that CCR was created a few months ago as a general-purpose political action committee (PAC). Such organizations are permitted to raise funds, host candidate debates, undertake voter education projects, and propose initiatives. The organization is now planning to undertake several statewide programs, but its top priority is to convince voters to approve the constitutional amendment that would knock the legislature back down to a part-time status.
“We can no longer afford to do business as usual in Sacramento. Legislators have lost touch with the people they represent,” Holt said. “They spend their professional political careers being influenced by big-money special interests instead of being home with real Californians, understanding what their needs are and living under the rules they make.”
Holt said that CCR has been asking voters throughout the state to name one big accomplishment the legislature has achieved in the past 30 years and most of the people asked have not been able to think of a single significant accomplishment. She added that CCR has also been asking Californians to name one major accomplishment the voters have achieved in the past 30 years. The most common response has been “Proposition 13,” which was the initiative passed by the voters in 1978 that strictly curtailed the ability of local governments to raise property taxes.
“Our legislature has failed California,” Holt said. “The crisis we have in California is a crisis of confidence.” She noted that California is only one of seven states that have a full-time legislature. Holt asked, “Did you know that our fulltime legislators get paid over $115,000 each year, plus $173 per diem, full car allowance and living expenses?” She added that the second-highest paid state legislators serve in Michigan, where they are paid $79,000 per year.
Holt also pointed out that Texas, the second most populous state in the nation, has the most part-time legislature out of the 50 states and closed its state budget this year with a $9 billion surplus. She added that Texas was the last state to enter the recession and ended the fiscal year with a 7.9-percent unemployment rate compared to California’s 11.9 percent. She stressed that Texas has surpassed California in economic prosperity largely because that state’s legislature knows how to manage its budget and does not pass nearly as many laws that drain vitality from the economy.
“Our state has been plagued by budget deficits and political gridlock for too long,” Holt said. She listed a series of incidents that she said demonstrate the dire need to drastically change the way the state legislature operates. Included in that list were: the fact that the leader of the state senate is suing the governor over his budget vetoes, the state employee union is suing the state over mandated furloughs, and a federal judge has ordered the state to release more than 40,000 felons from state prisons. Holt said all those and a host of other problems stem from the legislature approving programs and expenditures that benefit no one but special-interest groups.
“During this past emergency session, which would not exist under our initiative, there were over 100 fundraisers for legislators in Sacramento,” Holt said. “During the current session, there have been over 18 fundraisers a day for Sacramento politicians totaling over $21,000 per person to attend.” She added that the current session would not even exist under the terms of the proposed constitutional amendment.
To make matters worse, according to Holt, most of the 1,000 bills now pending in the legislature are sponsored by legislators for special interests, and, if passed, will do nothing to improve the welfare of the state.
“California deserves a legislature that is only interested in conducting the people’s business, not that of special interests who support the political class,” Holt said. “A part-time legislature will replace professional politicians with citizen legislators who are in touch with the average voters and will provide real solutions to California’s problems.”
Holt pointed out that the state attorney general’s office authorized the petition for the proposed constitutional amendment several months ago, and CCR began collecting signatures to place the amendment on the November 2010 ballot. However, the original petition did not contain language that would reduce legislators’ salaries. “We wanted to keep it simple,” Holt said. “But we heard from many of our supporters that they want the amendment to include a pay cut too.”
So CCR resubmitted the proposed amendment to the attorney general’s office with language specifying a 15-percent pay cut. Now CCR has until December 7, 2009 to gather one million signatures in order to place the amendment on the November 2010 ballot. Holt stressed that registered voters who signed the original petition must also sign the new one.