08/27/2012 by Ed Coghlan
California Legislature shouldn’t rush to judgment
Will the Legislature ultimately decide to let in a bit more sunshine on their processes? (photo: Jeff's Canon/Flickr)
No doubt, there will be sound and fury coming out of Sacramento this week about the issue of California pension reform.
It's the last week of the two year Legislative session and final action on non-urgency bills must take place by midnight on August 31. Hundreds of them will voted upon, but none will gain as much attention as pension reform. Although the legislature and governor have known about the problem for years, nothing focuses the mind like the end of the session.
The cost of public employee pension obligations has become a significant budgetary obligation, now over $3 billion per year, more than the state spends on the entire budget allocation to the University of California. Clearly public pension reform needs to focus on long-term costs as well as maintaining a reasonable retirement benefit for public employees.
It's not the result, but the process that worries good government advocates like our own Senior Fiscal Policy Advisor Fred Silva.
He thinks there are two real important questions that we all face this coming week.
The first is obvious, "What's going to happen in the Legislature?"
The second is not as obvious, but just as important: "What is the public going to know about what's going to happen in the Legislature?
"Pension Reform will be the big issue, no doubt and it's important that this issue is explored in the light of day," said Silva.
The legislature has a procedure for dealing with big tough issues – it is the legislative conference committee. In the case of pension reform, a conference committee made up of members of both houses and political parties was appointed earlier in the year in order to find a solution. This is a public forum that allowed everyone to keep abreast of a developing policy choice. The problem was that it did not do its job and present a timely proposal that Democrats and Republicans could agree on that could then be presented to the voters.
"This should be discussed during the spring and summer, not this Thursday or Friday as the session is ending," added Silva.
Discussions of changes to the state’s major environmental quality law, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) fell to the same problem. Major policy changes need public focus over an extended period of time, not last minute actions by the legislature.
Right now interests groups play by the rules that are in place. Plenty of those interest groups are willing to play under rules that provide more transparency. It's just a matter of getting those changes to the rulebook introduced and implemented.
"We will be watching with interest how this unfolds," said Silva. "You need to make the public aware of issues long before you take this up. Whether one week is enough time to do anything serious that the public can react to is a fair question."
Pension Reform is the most visible issue still remaining. There are literally hundreds of bills that may be voted on this week. We will be watching the process for you this week.