Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

Viewpoints: Three state offices that the state doesn't need

Published: Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 - 9:03 pm

Random thought: Assuming there's still a surplus come the May revise to the state budget, the biggest winner will be: (a) underfunded schools, (b) a frayed safety net, (c) California's decayed infrastructure.

Answer: (d) none of the above.

In a for-profit budget, the biggest winners will be Sacramento's ruling class. Here's why: With the state's finances in the black, the California Citizens Compensation Commission likely will vote to give the governor, legislators and other state officeholders a pay raise.

Should this occur, expect the state Legislature to come under fire – with good reason. California legislators receive a little more than $90,000 a year in salary – the nation's highest such base pay. That doesn't include another $30,000 or so in per diem expenses. But as that per diem is tax-free, it's more like $50,000 in income.

Is $140,000 stinking rich? As a resident of a town (Palo Alto) where a 1,100-foot cottage can come with a seven-figure price tag, I think not. Then again, the point of public service isn't to develop a working knowledge of Cayman tax shelters. Besides, there was a time, not too long ago, when Willie Brown scraped by on an Assembly speaker's salary – a meager existence that included sports cars and Brioni suits.

In a far better world, any lawmakers' pay hike would come only as part of a grander bargain. Think carrot and stick.

First, the stick.

Less is more, as Jerry Brown once said, and California more or less has too many statewide offices. So let's see what the state can live without:

• Abolish the lieutenant governor. Give Gavin Newsom credit, on matters like job creation, for trying to make his job relevant. That said, California's "lite" guvs are little ministers without MacBook Air-thin portfolios – precious little responsibility, too much time on their hands (in Newsom's case, writing a borderline-comical book likening governing to a social network gaming). We could eliminate this office, putting the attorney general first in line to succeed the governor, and no one would notice the difference.

• Abolish the superintendent of public instruction. With no control over school purse strings, California's superintendent of public instruction is the third wheel of Sacramento's muddled education debate. Arnold Schwarzenegger toyed with the idea of abolishing the position but never put it to the test (in 1934, California voters rejected a ballot measure doing away with the job). It would be better to eliminate this unnecessary voice and limit the conversation to the two entities that matter – the Legislature and the governor.

• Merge treasurer/controller. In Wisconsin, State Treasurer Kurt Schuller won office with the promise of abolishing his job. Texas did away with its state treasurer, handing over the office's duties to the comptroller of public accounts? Does California need both a treasurer and a controller? Check the two offices' websites: the controller is "the chief fiscal officer of California." The treasurer: "Has broad responsibilities and authority in the areas of investment and finance." Is that too much for one individual to handle?

Sadly, this constitutes wishful thinking – as in, altering the California Constitution. Absent an end-around initiative run, that means getting the Legislature to buy into the idea of eliminating two or three elected offices which, in California's term-limit era, have become soft landing pads for termed-out lawmakers.

Which bring us to the carrot in this conversation: abolishing term limits.

The poster boy in this conversation: Bill Lockyer, the current state treasurer – and before that, California's attorney general. Were it not for term limits, Lockyer might still be the state Senate president pro tem, with four decades of legislative experience behind him. Instead, he's formed a campaign committee to run for controller in 2014. Who would replace Lockyer? Yup, John Chiang, presently in his second and final term as controller.

It's a free country and Lockyer is free to seek any office he likes. Just as, in 2022 and forced to budge after two terms as state controller, he could celebrate 50 years in Sacramento by taking a stab at one of the four statewide offices that so far have eluded him. And that's the problem: for a lifer like Bill Lockyer, is it a passion to serve, or a desire to black out his bingo card of state offices?

Ending term limits won't solve all of California's political woes. We'll still have bad actors – and individuals acting in bad faith. But it does offer one possible improvement: hungry candidates looking to the future, as opposed to those looking for an excuse to loiter around the state Capitol for another eight years – or longer.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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