Advocates have fought to make California a part-time legislature for a while now. Strangely, the coronavirus pandemic has given these advocates what they want in the interest of public health.
The California State Legislature has largely been sidelined since shelter-in-place orders and closures began in March 2020. The state legislature temporarily recessed from March to May, and now they are sidelined for a few more weeks due to members of the legislature and staff testing positive for coronavirus. As of writing this, they are set to return on July 27, 2020.
Sure, the business of the state is being done virtually, but it’s been “public policy lite” compared to the normal bustle of the state capitol. As a former staffer, I can share from experience that the legislature would be entering the home stretch of the legislative calendar – with all day and night floor hearings looming before the August 31st deadline.
The state legislature’s reduced role has also created constitutional concerns between elected officials and the governor.
The California Legislature became full-time, or “professional,” in 1966 by a vote of the people. According to Pew, California is only one of four states with full-time legislatures – along with Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.
The National Conference of State Legislatures calls these four states “green legislatures.” It is not for any political leanings, but instead is a ranking system they use – green means well-paid, full-time, and large staff for members. California lawmakers can make roughly $107,241 a year, plus per diem.
Despite paying for a full-time legislature, Californians may not be getting their money’s worth this year.
Whatever your stance on part or full-time legislatures, some Assembly members are concerned about the power exercised by Governor Gavin Newsom since March as California’s Legislature effectively became a part-time legislature again temporarily.
Assemblymen Kevin Kiely and James Gallagher sued the governor over an executive order in June on vote-by-mail balloting. According to KQED, they even said the lawsuit was about process, not policy as they supported legislation for vote-by-mail ballots before the legislature adjourned. It is the latest action in a long debate from Assemblyman Kiley, who has charged that the governor is running California on his own.
Kiley and Gallagher aren’t wrong. Checks and balances are as American as apple pie. Newsom, for better or worse, and lately it seems like worse, is dishing out executive orders without much interference or input from the State Assembly and State Senate.
California is on the experimental end of an unplanned experiment in a part-time legislature. We will have to wait and see the final results from the end of the legislative year, which is supposed to come on August 31, to measure the impact of forced recesses and reduced legislation.
Many small government advocates may cheer for the impromptu experiment. Others may shudder when they look at the power gaps it leaves for those still running the state.
Assemblyman Kiley may have summed it up best in a July 10 tweet writing, “Not long ago, a prolonged absence by the California Legislature might have come as welcome news. But now we’ve seen what Gov. Newsom can do when he has the Capitol to himself.”
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.