Dan Walters

August 2, 2014

Dan Walters: Legislative session has been an experiment in reform

The soon-to-close 2012-14 session of the California Legislature has been an experiment in civic reform.

The Legislature’s 2012-14 biennial session, which enters its final month this week, has been an experiment in civic reform aimed at reviving a dysfunctional institution.

The 2012 legislative elections were the first conducted in districts drawn by an independent commission and the first under the state’s “top-two” primary system.

There was an immense turnover of members, particularly in the Assembly; Democrats won historic “supermajorities” in both legislative houses; and a newly revised term-limit law changed internal dynamics.

Are the reforms working?

It’s a difficult question because the different sponsors of the changes said they wanted to cure dysfunction, but they defined it in different ways.

Those on the left wanted to further empower the Democratic majority, while those on the right sought to restrain the majority’s liberal activist wing.

Both, in a sense, have seen some gains. The left got its supermajorities and eliminated the two-thirds vote on budgets. But as Democratic ranks expanded, they included more business-friendly moderates – in part because business groups played the top-two primary system adroitly.

The supermajorities that gave Democrats – in theory – the power to pass new taxes and constitutional amendments have turned out to be nonfactors.

The margins were very thin, moderate Democrats were reluctant to do what liberal activists had hoped, and suspension of three Democratic senators who ran afoul of the law erased the Senate’s supermajority, at least temporarily.

A couple of academic studies have attempted to arithmetically calculate whether the top-two primary has moderated an ideologically polarized Legislature. But their results are inconclusive, in part because it is difficult to isolate that one change’s effects from the impact of other new factors, such as commission-drawn districts and term-limit modifications.

One is left, therefore, with making a holistic, albeit somewhat subjective, appraisal with the caveat that evaluating major systemic changes after less than two years’ experience may be premature.

As reconstituted in the 2012 elections with all of the changes listed earlier, the California Legislature appears to be marginally more grounded in California’s social and economic reality.

The majority Democrats and the minority Republicans are less prone to flights of ideological fancy and more interested in doing the real work of governing a fractious state.

The systemic changes have contributed to that maturation, but having an adult in the building named Jerry Brown also helped.

However, the Legislature still is a long way from reclaiming its role as California’s prime policymaker, having been usurped by initiatives and the courts.

“Time will tell” may be a hackneyed phrase, but in this case it’s quite accurate.

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