Freshman Legislators Bring Hope, Maybe Change, to Sacramento
It may be the best sign of not only change coming to the center of California government, but also the clearest sign of just how bad things have been.
It happened, says Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-San Rafael), during a heated debate over one of his pieces of legislation. Levine, a member of the freshman class that just finished its first two-year term in the Assembly, was approached by fellow freshmen from the Republican side of the aisle.
"They were asked to speak against my bill," said Levine. His fellow newcomers weren't going to vote for the bill, but "they were refusing to speak on the floor against [it]."
In other words, they were rejecting the time-honored Sacramento tradition of scoring cheap political points.
"I think that says something about the relationships that we're building," said Levine. And he's not alone.
Interviews and informal conversations with a number of the state Capitol's newest legislators and their observers think there is a sign that this class -- the largest in the Legislature since 1966 -- may be making the most of the governance and electoral changes recently enacted by voters.
"You're seeing movement away from that gridlock, movement away from that inability to deal with the state's most basic issues," said Steve Boilard, executive director of CSU Sacramento's Center for California Studies.
Since 2010, voters have created an independent commission to draw legislative districts; enacted new primary rules that deemphasize the role of political parties; made it easier to pass state budgets by lowering the legislative vote threshold; and reconfigured legislative term limits, allowing lawmakers to serve up to 12 years in a single house.
That last change -- via 2012's Proposition 28 -- means this freshman class could gain more experience, and power, than any since the enactment of term limits in 1990.
"I think we all have that long term kind of thinking in our heads of, 'Look, you're going to have to work together for a long time, so make it work,'" said Assemblymember Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore).
Systemic changes, of course, aren't the only thing the newest crop of legislators have been given; a recovering economy has also helped. That and other factors may explain why voters have given steadily higher job approval ratings to the Legislature, even in the face of isolated scandals involving allegations of bribery and corruption.
But the rewritten rules of California politics might allow enough breathing room for legislators to find their public policy footing in a Capitol now dominated by lobbyists and veteran staff and consultants.
"Members knowing they're going to be here a little bit longer," said Assemblymember Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), "have pushed back a lot on consultants these first two years. And thereby, you begin to change dynamics."
A number of legislators in the class of 2012 chose to introduce fewer bills in their first two years, and some suggest it's a sign that there's not so much hurry to legislate when you know you could be in office longer (twice as long now in the Assembly as under the former term limits).
"Legislators in one house or the other, they've known they've got an expiration date," said Assemblymember Levine. "And it means that they're looking more short-term, that they're basing their legislation on how to get that next job. And that hasn't been good for us."
Measuring change in the Legislature, though, may not be so easy. Some might, for example, suggest that a higher number of bipartisan votes on bills would signal less rancor. Others, though, argue that only the biggest issues -- those most critical to California's future -- should be held to that standard. A number of legislators point to this summer's work, and agreement, on crafting Proposition 1, a $7.1 billion water bond on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot.
"There weren't a lot of floor speeches. There wasn't a lot of argument," said Assemblymember Melendez. "It was just, 'Here's what we've got. Let's get it done.'"
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