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3.22.2010

Legislature Makes Changes Aimed at Improving Work Quality

The Legislature proposed a series of bipartisan operational changes March 22, including stricter limits on bill introductions, aimed at improving the caliber of their work product.

Announced at a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Committees on Improving State Government, the changes include a greater focus on examining whether existing state programs work well or should be revamped.

“There’s a clear consensus – more oversight,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, an Antioch Democrat.

The Democratic majority Legislature’s quest to improve its operations has been overshadowed by the recent introduction of a constitutional amendment backed by California Forward, a foundation-financed group advocating a series of sweeping constitutional changes, including a majority vote budget, a two-year budget cycle, subjecting state programs to annual performance reviews and making it easier for local governments to increase sales taxes.

Initially, the group planned to place its proposals on the ballot as an initiative but short of cash to gather the needed signatures, brought its ideas to the Legislature. They are contained in a constitutional amendment, ACA 4, and two statutes, AB 2591 and AB 1638 which would take effect only if voters approve the constitutional amendment.

There are identical bills in the Senate: SCA 19, SB 844 and SB 845.

The constitutional amendment can only be placed on the ballot with a two-thirds vote, requiring at least some support from Republican lawmakers who oppose the majority vote budget.

“Democrats again are simply trying to take away the protections the people put into the constitution, so they can raise taxes and spend more,” Senate Republican Leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta said in a March 11 statement.

DeSaulnier and Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat and chair of the lower house’s improving government committee, said the March 22 hearing would be the first of many on California Forward’s proposals.

Lawmakers don’t have to go to the ballot to change their internal policies.

Of the moves announced at the hearing the most significant is reducing the amount of bills introduced by the state’s 120 lawmakers by one-third.

Assembly members and senators are currently limited to a maximum of 40 bills. There is no limit on resolutions, which don’t carry the weight of law.

If every legislator introduced 40 bills the maximum would be 4,800. Under the new policy, the ceiling would be 3,200.

However, from a practical standpoint, legislators usually don’t reach the maximum number.

Since the start of the current two-year legislative session, the 40-member Senate has introduced 1, 494 bills plus 40 Senate resolutions, 25 joint resolutions, 90 concurrent resolutions and 30 constitutional amendments for a total of 1,679, according to the Senate History for the week ending March 18.

The 80-member Assembly has introduced 2,567 measures as of March 18: 2,332 bills, 26 House resolutions, 141 concurrent resolutions, 35 joint resolutions and 33 constitutional amendments.

Excluding resolutions, the combined total of legislation and constitutional amendments in both houses is 3,889 – 689 over the new limit which would be imposed at the beginning of the next two-year session.

To encourage bipartisanship, Feuer said each lawmaker could have an additional two bills co-authored by a lawmaker of the other party.

“Fewer bills allow more time for policy committees to focus on enhance oversight activities,” a summary of the operational changes says.

Earlier this year, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, proposed a seven bill per member limit in the Senate, fueled in part by the state’s fiscal woes. His fellow lawmakers said it was better to set new limits at the beginning of legislative sessions.

Lawmakers would also spend more time examining how well new laws are being implemented, the performance of state agencies and the delivery of services of various state programs.

Much of this added oversight would be conducted through the policy committees of both houses. The Senate and the Assembly have already increased the amount of informational and other assessment hearings.

The Assembly has created the Accountability and Administrative Review Committee. Steinberg, the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes.

But the operational changes propose even more scrutiny.  In the Senate, for instance, as many as 48 additional hearings are being considered on topics ranging from earthquake readiness to the future of nuclear energy.

As part of that process, the Senate also wants to conduct more “sunset reviews.” Various programs and boards and commissions have a “sunset clause” which means the program or board ceases to exist at a certain date unless legislation is introduced to extend its life.

That’s easier to do in the upper house where the Rules Committee confirms or denies appointees and can hold those appointees accountable for the performance of the entities they head.

The Senate proposes to review more than 12 boards and commissions this year.

Finally, committee chairs and vice chairs in both houses will create short lists of committee priorities and share the list with legislative leaders. The list would serve as yardstick to measure the performance of committee chairs in reaching their goals.

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