Soapbox

Op Image: Here are ways to fix a broken Legislature

New state Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Santa Ana, holds her son Tommy Bonikowski III, 4, before the swearing-in ceremony in the Senate chambers on Dec. 1. Assemblyman Mike Gatto says the new class of legislators has a chance to make key reforms.
New state Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Santa Ana, holds her son Tommy Bonikowski III, 4, before the swearing-in ceremony in the Senate chambers on Dec. 1. Assemblyman Mike Gatto says the new class of legislators has a chance to make key reforms. Associated Press file

When the new Legislature took office last December, I was sworn in as the “dean” of the Assembly, a silly title that just reflects that I now have the most seniority in the lower house.

While I always enjoy a chuckle at the notion of being the most experienced Assembly member, I would be remiss not to pass along whatever knowledge I’ve gained. In certain ways, I am a bridge between two eras – the only current Assembly member to have served under a Republican governor and before super-majority budget rules.

Budget deficits defined the Legislature when I started. During my first term, gridlock forced us to spend the night locked in the Capitol several times, getting nothing done until October while California’s bills went unpaid. We should never go back to that.

The new class of lawmakers plays under different rules. They can serve 12 years in either house, so they have great opportunities to thoughtfully reform a system that is broken in many ways. With that in mind, here is what I’ve learned.

Less is more. Every Assembly member is allowed to introduce 20 bills a year. New bills don’t necessarily mean new laws, because it takes a bill to repeal a bad law, too. But legislating by numbers results in a lot of duplicative proposals, incrementalism and disjointed mini-solutions to big problems. Reducing the number of bills any lawmaker could carry would result in more comprehensive solutions, perhaps with more authors and greater input. This is a good thing.

The concept of less is more also applies to the Legislature’s standing committees. I do not fault the leadership for trying to develop specific areas of expertise, and I also understand that there are many mouths to feed. However, 31 standing committees in the Assembly, most with more than a dozen members each, are too many. Lawmakers spend much of April, May and August shuttling back and forth between the many committees that meet daily. Legislators miss bill presentations. The forced chaos disperses the power of legislators while centralizing power in the leadership. It also makes it more difficult for the people and the press to serve as watchdogs. This isn’t good for the state.

It’s a rookie misconception to think that being a committee chairperson or sitting on several committees is significant. To the contrary. If the number of committees were reduced to just nine in the Assembly with nine members on each, then each member’s vote would really matter and legislators could more easily become experts on issues each committee handles. And it wouldn’t matter so much who was chairperson because every member would be a “decider” on several bills, each week. Furthermore, this arrangement would result in a better party balance on committees, which is a matter of fairness.

The Assembly – and the Legislature as a whole – needs to reassert itself. The legislative branch of government should have more initiative than the judicial and executive. When some unelected bureaucrat isn’t doing a proper job or is out of touch with most Californians, the Legislature should not hesitate to override that agency or cut its budget. This is only possible by dusting off available tools such as subpoenas, testimony under oath and lengthy oversight hearings. Those matters take time and proper focus – which legislators would have more if the above reforms came to fruition.

The final advice I have for newbies is to surprise people. If people expect that you will vote one way all the time, go the other way every once in a while. Constituents expect form letters when they write you about an issue. Send them personalized emails. Everyone expects politicians to be late. Be on time.

Mike Gatto, a Glendale Democrat, represents the 43rd Assembly District.

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