Community Columns

The legislative process needs to be overhauled

I have been deeply frustrated with this year's budget process, or shall I say, lack of process. If the process had truly followed the design set forth in the state Constitution, then there would have been a budget presented by the Legislature to the governor by June 15. Thanks to a game of politics, rather than focusing on the people affected, the budget was delayed 52 days, impacting vital services such as public safety and education.

Wednesday, I submitted a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger requesting that he convene a budget revision panel to address the budget process. In order to prevent future budget impasses, California needs to put teeth into the constitutional deadlines. It begins by holding legislators accountable to meet the June 15 deadline.

If a budget has not been sent to the governor by this deadline, then both houses should be required to remain in session around the clock until an agreement is reached. Legislators should not get paid during the stalemate and not be allowed to recoup this money once a budget is passed.

If an agreement can't be reached by July 1, then California needs to formalize a process for automatic emergency appropriation payments.

The late Sen. Ken Maddy of Fresno authored legislation in 1998 that helped keep the state running while negotiations continue. I had similar legislation this year, which was ignored by the majority party. The state must continue to function and protect those who need funding, even if the Legislature can't agree on a state budget.

The budget process needs to begin in January. California should require the legislative analyst to determine whether the governor has submitted a truly balanced budget in January. If his budget proposal is not balanced, then the governor should have to resubmit a budget that is balanced and during this revision period, the governor's pay should be cut. (This would not work with Schwarzenegger, since he does not accept a salary from the state, but it might impact future governors.)

Shortly after the governor's budget is certified as balanced by the legislative analyst's office, the budget conference committee hearing process should begin. Not all items can be finalized that far out, but negotiations need to begin earlier.

The budget conference committee system needs to be strengthened by increasing committee membership from the current six legislators to 10 -- five from each house, including at least two minority party members from each house. Each minority party caucus would choose its own conferees rather than having these positions appointed by the majority party as they have been in the past.

Most important, the vote threshold of this committee needs to be changed to two-thirds, meaning at least seven votes -- and support from one minority party member -- would be needed for the budget to move from the committee to the Senate and Assembly floors. Under this setup, many of the hang-ups could be resolved earlier. These negotiations would help make budget stalemates a thing of the past.

The state budget is a serious matter that should not be negotiated in a matter of weeks or days, or crafted in the wee morning hours when people are tired. The budget process must begin in January, not in the middle of summer, when some legislators are more focused on vacations.

Californians deserve an on-time, balanced budget that protects both public safety and education funding. I believe the budget process changes I suggested can help ensure this.

Denham, a Republican from Merced, represents the 12th Senate District, which includes about half of Stanislaus County. This summer, he was under fire from Democrats for not voting for the budget. When the budget was finally approved last week, another Republican senator cast the deciding vote.