Usually It’s Taxpayers Who Get Spanked

Not surprisingly Assemblywoman "Spankin’" Sally Lieber has withdrawn her bill to criminalize the paddling of young children. Apparently in addition to the heaps of ridicule generated by the press her colleagues pleaded with her to back off. Lawmakers are anxious to appear at least marginally rational now that an initiative petition to extend their terms in office has been filed.

Of course whacky bills are something of a tradition in the Legislature. Not long ago a member of the Assembly introduced legislation to require that state buildings be designed consistent with Feng Shui an Asian practice relating to the placement and arrangement of space to achieve harmony with the environment. And a few years earlier there was a bill that would have helped a nudist colony obtain a liquor license. Since the owner of the nudist retreat was a major donor to the bill’s author the motivation behind this legislation was laid bare.

Then there was the state Senator who used to introduce several hundred bills each session as a means to secure campaign dollars. Sort of the "I’ve introduced a bill for you now contribute to my campaign" theory of government. Since the analysis and printing of each bill cost thousands of dollars each this was not a trivial matter for taxpayers. This lawmaker later went to prison for other transgressions. And while this Senator may represent the extreme members of the Legislature grow increasingly adept at levering legislative proposals for the purpose of fundraising. (Which is why certain legislative committees are openly referred to as "juice" committees.)

An experienced eye estimates that 90% of the legislation currently introduced is designed to give one special interest an advantage over either their competitors or the taxpayers. Another 5% is plain silly stuff like the bill to ban the de-clawing of cats or limiting the number of pages in public school text books. Of the remaining 5% 4 of 5 are marginally relevant to the interests of the people and only the remaining 1% could actually be classified as important. The workers comp legislation is an example of the latter but even there it took the threat of an initiative to actually spur the Legislature to action.

Thus it would be hard to argue that all of our current state representatives take seriously their responsibilities to the public at large. And even on their best behavior it is difficult to argue that they deserve longer terms. Still as long as they have their surrogates working to keep them in office by changing the State Constitution with an initiative it is only fair that we place other options on the table as well.

First of course is reapportionment and taking away the power of lawmakers to select their own voters. Fair redistricting would give the citizens of California the most reform bang for the buck.

But how about a part-time Legislature? The full-time Legislature was overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 1966 after they were told that a system using professional full-time lawmakers would reduce the influence of special interests. Does anyone think it has worked out as promised?

California is one of only four states with a full-time Legislature and adding insult to injury our representatives are the nation’s highest paid. Of course current legislators like the current system now and would oppose such a change but nonetheless there ought to be an honest debate about a return to a part-time Legislature.

Then there is the unicameral Legislature. Only one state Nebraska uses this system but it seems to work for them. Rather than having large overlapping districts we might be better off with more representatives elected from smaller districts — fairly drawn of course — resulting in a state government closer to the people. It is worthy of study.

An acquaintance of mine who has worked closely with a number of elected officials swears we would see more honesty diversity of experience and respect for taxpayers if lawmakers were chosen through the jury system — citizens chosen at random with no felons allowed. While I see his point it strikes me as undemocratic — as Churchill said Democracy is the worst system except for all the others — and we would risk losing continuity in policy and legislation.

Still anyone who takes our current lawmaking process seriously has joined the ranks of those deluded folks who thought the emperor’s new clothes were beautiful. Changes are in order but if we are expected to alter the system to benefit those now in office let’s also take a look at changes that would benefit the rest of us.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.