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KPBS Midday Edition

Legislature Swamps Governor In Bills

Last-Minute Legislation
GUESTLeo McElroy, non-partisan political consultant

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Last Friday, the California assembly wrapped up its session, and as usual, there's a stack of legislation on governor Jerry Brown's desk waiting for his decision or veto. And the governor and the legislature have some real changes to point to in this session, and because of recent reforms voted on by Californians, there is hope that we might expect more from Californians in the next session than we have in the past. Joining me to talk about the bills awaiting signature and to assess this session is my guest, Leo McElroy. Nonpartisan political consultant based in Sacramento. Welcome. MCELROY: Hi, Maureen. That's hard to say, I know! CAVANAUGH: It's a mouthful. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: It's lovely to have you on the show again. Now, tell us about the pile of last-minute bills that the governor has to sort through. Which bills could have the largest impact? MCELROY: Well, I think the two that are going to get the most attention because they affect the most people one way or the other are going to be the workers' comp changes that were made which are going to increase benefits to injured workers. And the public pension reform measure which was attempting to address a huge deficit problem that local governments particularly are facing with their unions. A big unfunded debt that this measure nibbles at. This measure probably gets at maybe 40-$60 billion. It seems like a lot until you realize that the undid you understanded indebtedness of the public pension funds is around $164 million, conservatively. So the measures do something, but they leave about $100 billion still on the table to be worried about. CAVANAUGH: I think there was some criticism from the extreme wings of both parties. But on the whole, do you think it could be assessed as one of the high-points or the success of the legislature? MCELROY: It's a success in that they did something. It was les of a success when you figure that it was done at the last minute, thrown into a bill that was gutted to contain it, and shoved at lawmakers who really didn't have time to did through this thing at all, and it doesn't really solve the problem. CAVANAUGH: It brings me to my point. Why is there such a flood of bills in the final days of the legislature? As you point out, this was an immense bill, this reform. Some legislators said they didn't want to vote on Ta handful because they couldn't even have read it. Why did they wait until the last minute? MCELROY: Because they don't want to make the tough decisions any earlier, and because they're busy with pro forma bill like establishing a state seashell and something of that sort. The easy bills get through fast, the difficult bills pile up in this roadblock and are jammed up on them and piled up in the last few days of a session. Nobody gets a chance to read them completely, nobody gets a chance to consider them completely, everything is taken on faith. And there are some terrible pieces of legislation that historically have gotten through in those days. Everything from typos huge miscontrariers of justice. They sit there trying to figure out which to read and which not to read, and hysterically, the governors, Jerry Brown particularly I can recall from his first time around, has signed legislation that was awful legislation and then afterward had to look at it, admit that he hadn't read Tlegislators hadn't read it, and promptly everybody had to sit down and repeal it. It's a messy situation because it's the worst side of the legislature. It's stuff going through without being read, without being considered, without being even thought about. CAVANAUGH: There's been speculation that the governor might have an especially hard time this year figuring out which bills to yay or nay. Because he has had a wide range of donations to his tax initiatives to his array of interests. MCELROY: I think that's complicating life for the governor all over the place, not just in bill-signings, but in other decisions he's made. He made a decision on offreservation casinos for Indian tribes opening up a couple of tribes to build casinos not on their reservations. Those tribes and their supporters had been contributors to their ballot issuing campaigns, but so had their opposers. So he's making somebody mad no matter what he does. CAVANAUGH: I'm talking about prop 30, do you think in retrospect leaving this state funding up to the voters in November was the biggest failure of the legislature and the governor this session? MCELROY: No, I think it was a system of two endemic problems. No. 1, we've got a legislature that can't agree on taxation measures because the Republicans just draw a line in the sand and say we're not going to vote for them, period. So that makes tax measures off the board. There aren't enough votes out there to do it without enough Republican votes. The second problem to it is that the earlier election of the primary that was held in June was no longer available because they looked at it and said it's going to be a relatively small turnout, mostly Republicans because they have a contest, and therefore let's not bother putting tax measures on when it's going to be mostly Republicans voting on it. CAVANAUGH: It possible for the governor and the legislature to decide to raise taxes themselves, right? MCELROY: It is. But it takes a supermajority in the legislature to do it. We haven't given them the power to tax. We've given them the power to pass a budget. But you can't do that without Republican votes. CAVANAUGH: Now you mentioned the partisan divide. Next year, I believe that there is -- starting next year I believe that there is some hope that things could be different because of the passage of two initiatives that were passed recently by California voters. First there's the top two primary. How do you think that might change the politicians who make it to Sacramento? MCELROY: I think it creates the potential for moderate politicians to be elected rather than ones who were primarily beholden to the strongest wing of their party. Republicans to their right wing support, Democrats to support from the left. This measure opens up the possibility that you can in a number of districts, in this particular case, over 20 districts in the legislature would be decided on contents where a Democrat faces another Democrat as the top two vote getters or a Republican faces a respect. In cases like that, theoretically, these are going to cause those legislators to be less beholden to the wing of the party and to be more dependent on trying to attract independent votes and even votes from the other party. So we may start to see some moderates show up in the legislature. They have been an endangered species there up until now. A few years ago, we had a couple moderates who said let's start cooperating, and they were ostracized. We had said originally as voters that we would term limit out assembly members after three term, six years, and senators after two term, that's eight years. This measure allows a legislature to remain in one chamber for 12 years so that an assembly member can serve six terms, making them a little more familiar with the workings of that house, and a little less dependent on having to start raising campaign money to run for another office. That will give us legislatures with more history, understanding of the way the business works, and a les likelihood that they're positive playing musical chairs. CAVANAUGH: Is this retroactive for the current legislators? MCELROY: It is. Legislators who have hit that wall are gone. So we're seeing the results right now. If they bumped up against the present term limit, and if this new measure goes in, it does apply retroactively. CAVANAUGH: I see. Then there's the other beacon of light that some people have referred to. And that is the fact that boundaries have now been drawn by an independent committee instead of the legislature. How do you expect that may change what goes on in Sacramento? MCELROY: I think it's the biggest change of all. It's the hugest move toward really honest government. Up until now, the lines of the legislature have been drawn by the legislature. So they set up safe districts that are safe for the Democrat, safe Republican districts for the Republicans, and as few competitive districts as they can possibly manage. This gets the support of both parties. And they have enthusiastically been endorsing this up until now. Now we have a situation where you have a panel that is Republicans, Democrat, and independents drawing these boundaries and trying to draw districts that may be competitive, that may better serve communities of interest and are more likely to to bring us legislators that are dependent more on a vote of the general public than appealing just to one specific political party. CAVANAUGH: Back to the present fiscal situation that we have now in California, when this legislatively session ended, was there any discussion at all as to what might happen if indeed the governor's initiative does not pass and the legislators have to go back and cut from the budget again? In other words, does the state have all its eggs in one basket? MCELROY: If there is a plan B, it is so well concealed, so deeply tucked away -- [ LAUGHTER ] MCELROY: In a hidden location that no one knows wheres! There is no plan B. We're sitting on the cusp of a situation where if the voters vote against this measure, and believe me, the support for it is not overwhelming, it is about a 50-50 in the polls right now. If the voters go against this, we're in a financial hole, and the next legislature is going to have to scramble to try to cover up that hole. And if they can't raise taxes to cover it, the only solution left will be massive cuts in government programs, which are already being cut pretty harshly.

Friday night marked the end of the legislative session in Sacramento and the beginning of a new era for the Legislature.

The dozens of bills passed in the session's waning days, some of them unread or not completely understood by the legislators voting on them, have landed on the Governor's desk.

The pile of legislation included a first attempt at pension reform for state workers and a bill mandating that the city of San Diego put its municipal employees on Social Security. A revision of the California Environmental Quality Act, long awaited by business interests, was not included. Many other bills died for lack of time or interest.


Next year, thanks to California voters, this "system" may begin to disappear. Several new legislators will come from about 20 competitive districts where Democrats are facing off against Democrats, and Republicans are dueling with fellow Republicans in November. These districts have been drawn by an independent commission, not by the party in power and consequently have not been gerrymandered into strange, twisted shapes to assure victory for one party.

Legislative candidates will increasingly have to appeal to all voters. This fact, in turn, may help to form a more moderate legislature. In theory, a less fractious legislature will have an easier time getting something done.

In addition, voters changed the law governing term limits to allow a legislator to serve 12 years in one house, rather than six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. The idea is that serving more time in one house will lead legislators to focus more on public policy rather than re-election.

One more change: state budgets can now pass with a majority vote, rather than 2/3 of the legislature.