America's founders intended legislators to be farmers, workers or business leaders who took time off each year to travel to Congress or to state legislatures to perform the people's business. Legislators weren't supposed to be professional, full-time political operatives insulated from the folks back home. They were supposed to live among their constituents and represent their communities' interests.
In California, we strayed from that worthy ideal in the late 1960s, when a full-time Legislature was enacted. Since then, California's school test scores have dropped from among the best in the nation to no better than 46th of the 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores released in December.
Yet, state general-fund spending has soared, from 3.95 percent of Californian's combined personal income in fiscal 1964-65 to 6.07 percent in 2010-11, according to data from the Department of Finance. As mandated by 1998's Proposition 98, 40 percent of general-fund spending must go to K-14 education.
The state for six years has been stuck with endemic budget deficits because of an inability to reduce spending to the level taxpayers are willing to fund. And issues such as pension reform, the state water system and education reform go unresolved.
What's needed is a return to a part-time Legislature that replaces the professional hacks in the Capitol with citizen-legislators. That's what is being advanced by Ted Costa of People's Advocate, a reform group. Along with Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, he's pushing the Citizen Legislature Initiative.
Mr. Costa was a major force behind the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis. OK, so that one didn't work out because he was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But the recall's passage showed that Mr. Costa can circulate petitions for a statewide initiative. "We finally got the petitions out on the street," he told us. "We've done tests. It's the hottest one out there." Mr. Costa said that whether people favor initiatives on pension reform (generally conservatives) or tax increases (generally liberals), almost everyone wants to discipline the out-of-control Legislature. "When they hear the legislators' pay will be cut to $18,000 a year from $95,000, people say, 'Let me sign,'" Mr. Costa said.
The initiative needs to gather 807,615 valid signatures by early May. But he's aiming to gather more than 1 million to ensure against duplicates and faulty signatures.