Legislature Struggles For Agreement on Package of ‘Reforms’

State lawmakers are struggling to find consensus on a package of changes, such as switching to a two-year budget cycle, which they hope will improve the operation of the Legislature and the state as a whole, burnishing their tarnished image in the process.

The laundry list, presented on an internal PowerPoint obtained by California’s Capitol, includes increasing oversight of state agencies and departments, switching to performance-based budgeting to measure program success and requiring initiatives to include new revenue to cover their costs.

A hearing of the Senate and Assembly Select Committees on Improving State Government to discuss the proposals was canceled January 19, apparently because of a lack of agreement over items on the list. 

The committees were created in 2009 to conduct hearings and propose changes to make government at all levels more efficient.

Four joint hearings were held on the operation of the Legislature, the initiative process and the relationship between state and local government. Recommendations of the committees were to be presented in January.

“It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to solve 30 years of problems in one hearing but we hope this hearing clarifies the problems we can tackle in the coming months,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a Martinez Democrat’s who chairs the upper house’s committee, in a statement after the fourth joint hearing on state and local government relations.

“Ultimately, the state and local governments have the same interest. We want services delivered effectively and efficiently, regardless of who delivers them,” DeSaulnier said.

Proposing changes in legislative and state operations would have several positive results, the PowerPoint says.

Number One is “Send a signal to Californians that we can improve how we do business.”

Taxpayer dollars would be maximized and the Legislature’s “dual purpose of creating new laws and overseeing the largest state bureaucracy in the United States” would be rebalanced.

Another goal would be to “earn trust for further reforms (i.e. term limits),” the PowerPoint says. 

The PowerPoint presentation is based on a 13-page summary of the testimony taken by the committees, which included a memorable speech by State Treasurer Bill Lockyer in which he described two-thirds of the bills passed by the Assembly as “junk” that should “never see the light of day.”

Several ideas presented to the committees did not make the PowerPoint list, including limits on the number of bills lawmakers can introduce, insulating committee staff from partisan politics, reducing late-in-the-session “gut-and-amend” legislation and having lawmakers serve on fewer committees, particularly two that meet at the same time.

The final page of the PowerPoint does, however, pose the question: “Too many bills? What do we do about it?”

On one of the last pages of the PowerPoint is a list of “other proposals for consideration” which appear to have less chance of consensus.

Among them, passage of the budget by a majority vote – Republicans oppose the idea – allowing local governments, by majority vote, to set voter approval thresholds for local taxes and lengthening or modifying legislative term limits.

The “reforms” being considered by the committee are not new.

Calls for greater oversight of state operations have been circulating in the Legislature for two decades.

Fifteen years ago, Gov. Pete Wilson attempted to switch to performance-based budgeting, which links spending to a program’s success or failure rather than simply adding or subtracting to current spending. The idea sputtered.

A two-year budget cycle has been debated for even longer. A proposed initiative for the November 2010 ballot by California Forward would move the state to a two-year budget cycle in which one year of the two-year session is devoted to creating a budget – the PowerPoint suggests the odd year – and the even year to passing other legislation.

Among the advantages cited in the PowerPoint:

“Better long-term planning for state priorities.

“More time for budget evaluation and priority setting.

“More certainty for those who rely on General Fund revenues.

“Less time fighting about budget deadlines.

“More opportunities to be ‘watchdog’ over executive branch departments and agencies.”

Those involved in the legislative budget process quip that the Legislature currently is forced to create a budget each quarter because of the economy and the enormous drop in state revenues it has fostered.

As to the “challenges” of two-year budgeting, the PowerPoint says “oversight models” will have to be created and that it will take “discipline” to restrict the introduction of other legislation during the budget year.

“In difficult times, significant work needed to rebalance budget,” the PowerPoint understates.

Sen. Denise Ducheny, a San Diego Democrat, is carrying a measure pending on the Senate floor that would prohibit an initiative containing a net increase in state or local government costs from being placed on the ballot.

Among the measures promoting performance-based budgeting is one by Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat. Wolk’s bill, SB 777, is co-authored by GOP Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar. 

The measure has been sitting in the upper house’s budget committee since May 2009 and has yet to have a hearing.

Performance-based budgeting is defined in the bill as  “establishing clear accountability by achieving measurable performance results from the expenditure of state resources.”

As both the bill and the PowerPoint note, standards to measure that performance would need to be created. Agreement on who should do that will be difficult.

Wolk would phase in the use of the budgeting technique over the next few years, requiring the governor to base his entire spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2014 on performance-based budgeting.

The PowerPoint concludes by asking:

“What happens if we do nothing?”



  1. I actually think many of the things that
    DIDN’T make the list would produce good results. A strict rule about amendments being in-print for three days before heard would be a plus. The gut-and-amend process is great for lobbyists beginning their legislative program in mid-August, but bad for viewing by an increasingly aware public.

    If you don’t believe this, look at what happened in Massachusetts

    Comment by Jim Cassie — 1.21.2010 @ 9:03 pm

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