Cutting Leglislative Bloat

From the Sacramento Bee
Editorial: Cutting legislative bloat
Get rid of silly bills, do-nothing panels

Published 2:15 a.m. PST Monday, March 29, 2004

California's Legislature has a problem. Its members are preparing to gut vital programs in other parts of government. At the same time, the cost of its own operations continues to rise, modestly but steadily.

The Senate and Assembly combined budgets of $205 million this year increased by $7.5 million over last year, about 4 percent. Lawmakers propose to increase legislative allocations by another $10 million next year.

The increases are pegged to the growth in per capita personnel income, daily attendance in public schools and population, a formula that voters approved when they enacted term limits a decade ago. But nothing prevents legislators from spending less than the formula allows. As a sign to the rest of the state that California's financial crisis is real and that they are prepared to sacrifice just like everyone else, lawmakers should take a sharp knife to their own spending.

There is plenty to cut. Soon after assuming leadership in the Assembly, Speaker Fabian Nunez fired a half-dozen people, most of them political hangers-on and cronies of ex-Speaker Herb Wesson, who performed work of dubious public value. Party hacks and friends remain on the payrolls of dozens of Capitol offices. The Assembly offices of majority and minority services, the party caucuses, are particularly ripe for cuts. Traditionally, these offices house folks whose work has more to do with politics than policy.

The proliferation of select committees is another fertile field for cutbacks. Besides 29 standing committees, the Assembly has 72 select committees that research such arcane subjects as Challenges Facing Dual Language Communities or California Water Needs and Climate Change or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Families. The Senate has 35 select committees on topics ranging from School Safety to Citizens Participation.
Some select committees perform significant work. Sen. Jackie Speier's on-going hearings on waste and corruption in the state's massive prison bureaucracy held by the Select Committee on Government Oversight is a prime example. But most of them could and should be absorbed into the standing committee system.

Those regular committees would have more time to perform important oversight functions if they were not inundated with thousands of silly bills introduced every year, measures such as Sen. John Vasconcellos' bill to lower the voting age to 14, or Assemblyman Leland Yee's bill to require the California Building Standards Commission to adopt and publish standards that promote ancient Chinese "feng shui" design principles.
Even legislation of dubious value, often introduced to satisfy a cranky constituent or to give a legislator an excuse to issue a press release, still has to be drafted and analyzed and debated. That costs money. It also takes time away from serious legislation that deserves more careful scrutiny.

If lawmakers want the rest of government to cut, they need to set an example and exercise some restraint themselves. Getting rid of silly bills, do-nothing committees and political hacks would be a good start.