Golden State Seeks Change In Political Business as Usual

POLITICAL mud-wrestling, gridlock, yearly budget stalemates: the woes of the California Legislatureare legion.

Now, in what may prove to be the most dramatic overhaul of any state government, a constitutional commission is drafting a broad set of proposed reforms to make California political institutions more accountable to voters.

The proposals range from setting biennial budgets to merging the legislature's two chambers into one, making California only the second state to have a unicameral statehouse.

After a year of study, the preliminary report of the California Constitutional Revision Committee is expected to be delivered to Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and the Legislature by mid-September. The commission, created in 1993, will present a series of constitutional amendments to California voters in 1996. Any constitutional revision, however, requires two-thirds approval in the statehouse and the governor's signature.

Riding a wave of voter dissatisfaction and an increased willingness by public officials to streamline government, 35 states over the past five years have chartered blue-ribbon panels to examine their state governments and propose reform measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yet experts agree that California's proposals are more ambitious and broader in scope than any other and will undoubtedly meet stiff opposition from many elected officials and special interest groups.

Fred Silva, executive director of the commission, says the group proposes to replace a divided government with one that is more responsive and efficient; and to transform the relationship between state and local governments by strengthening home rule. Under the commission's plan, the 7,000 local government bodies in California will be able to write their own charters, including the levying of their own taxes.

"The constitutional framework for government wasn't holding anyone accountable for solving problems," Mr. Silva says. The proposals would ease the "disconnection" with government that many citizens say they feel.

Some of the most important proposals include:

*Breaking the budget logjams of the last seven years by allowing the state Legislature to pass a two-year - and balanced - budget by a simple majority vote. California is currently the only state that requires a two-thirds vote.

*Merging the Assembly and Senate into a 121-member unicameral body. Currently, only Nebraska has such a system. The hope is that fewer duplicate committee hearings and floor votes - and no conference committees - will reduce fighting and red tape.

*Lengthening term limits to a maximum of three four-year terms to increase legislative stability. Proposition 140, passed in 1992, limits Assembly members to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms.

The revision commission is the second in state history to be charged with reviewing and amending the 1879 state constitution, which underwent its last comprehensive rewrite in 1966.

The commission has yet to reach agreement on how to implement its far-reaching plan to refinance public education or restructure functions between state and local governments.

While the commission faces an uphill battle in realizing many of its proposals, it's nonetheless "an extraordinary time for California government," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. He notes that newly elected legislators who campaigned for reform are creating a political climate that is more receptive to change.

"A synergy is starting to happen," says Karen Carter, senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures "Elected officials at all levels seem to be searching for ways to demonstrate to the tax-paying public that they haven't lost touch." And as Washington considers realigning federal and state powers, "It's the perfect time for California to be doing this."

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