“OK, so 2008 was mostly a waste of what taxpayers spent on legislators … A year from now, we may look back on 2008 as the good old days.”
By Dan Walters | Sacramento Bee
Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 -- Most bills enacted by the state Legislature take effect on Jan. 1, so traditionally, California's major newspapers each December publish lengthy articles about new laws that the state's residents will have to follow.
Those articles are a rough guide to the overall performance of the state's lawmakers. If there are a lot of important new laws, legislators can claim they justified the $350 million-plus the Legislature costs taxpayers.
A perusal of recent newspaper articles, however, would indicate that when it comes to doing the public's work, 2008 was a big bust. Almost universally, those journalistic overviews focused on one measure as having the most universal impact – a new ban on cell phone texting while driving.
Actually, there was another 2008 bill that may have more memorable effect, Senate Bill 375, carried by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, which is aimed at realigning local housing and development policies toward higher density and mass transit. But we won't know what its impact will be, or whether it will be positive or negative, for many years to come.
Last year's relative paucity of legislative output continues a decades-long trend and can be fairly attributed to many factors, including term limits and gerrymandered legislative districts, ideological polarization and, most recently, the Capitol's preoccupation with a chronically imbalanced state budget.
Last summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to veto any bill that reached his desk unless lawmakers enacted a long-overdue budget and wound up, in fact, rejecting a record-high 35 percent of the bills that legislative leaders sent to his desk after a lengthy delay.
OK, so 2008 was mostly a waste of what taxpayers spent on legislators. The 772 mostly trivial bills they passed and Schwarzenegger signed cost us just over a half-million dollars each, scarcely a good return on the public's investment in policymaking. But will the 2009 session be any more productive, not only in quantitative terms but qualitative ones?
The early indications are not promising. The Legislature met fitfully through the fall on the state budget crisis without any effect. The Democratic majority ginned up a convoluted scheme to cover less than half the deficit without Republican votes, but it remains in limbo because Schwarzenegger has threatened to veto it unless it's changed to his liking.
It's safe to say that the budget and the $40 billion deficit projected over the next 18 months will remain the Capitol's preoccupation – or, more likely, its obsession. No matter what the governor and lawmakers do, even if they do it very quickly, the state will run out of money in a few weeks and probably be forced to turn off its check-writing machines.
And what of non-budgetary bills? It's almost obscene to even think about doing any other business as long as the state faces fiscal Armageddon. A year from now, we may look back on 2008 as the good old days.