Californians are cynical about their state Legislature -- and much of the reputation is earned. They see lawmakers as self-serving and more focused on their next position than on accomplishing the public's mission.
A new set of legislators, sworn in Monday, has the opportunity to prove the cynics wrong.
Thanks to voters -- who changed the state's term-limits law this year -- this incoming legislative crop will have the opportunity to serve a full 12 years in the Senate or Assembly. Unlike some of their recent predecessors, they'll have more opportunity to build expertise on specific policy priorities in their respective chambers.
In addition, the passage of Proposition 30 puts the state budget in stronger position than California has experienced for years. That doesn't mean lawmakers can spend like drunken sailors. But it does mean they can be more forward-looking and ambitious, rather than being consumed by the hard choices of year-to-year spending cuts.
The dynamics of this Legislature will be different than any other. The most obvious change is the supermajorities Democrats will enjoy in both chambers. In the past, Republicans were able to pursue some of their priorities -- such as regulatory reform -- by hinting they might help Democrats secure new revenues during budget shortfalls. They no longer will have that leverage, so they will have to find new ways to advance their agendas.
With 87 men and 32 women, the Legislature doesn't yet reflect the demographics of California. Still, there is little doubt it is becoming more diverse. This year, there will be 28 Latino lawmakers -- as opposed to 22 last year -- 11 Asians and 9 black legislators. All of those numbers tie or exceed all-time highs.
Previous legislative sessions and legislators have discredited the state Capitol. Along with making a mess of California's finances, lawmakers have been arrested on suspicion of DUI and shoplifting. One resigned after being recorded making lewd (and apparently false) claims about his sexual exploits during a committee hearing.
This new crop will have the chance to restore some level of respect to representative government. To do so, it should focus on the three C's:
Courage -- Voter aren't looking for lawmakers who will sheepishly follow orders from Assembly or Senate leaders, protect their political benefactors at all costs or learn the ropes from veteran lobbyists. They want independent representatives who have the willingness to say "no" to bad ideas, even at the risk to their political standing.
Constituent service -- New lawmakers should take a page from former state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who actively and sincerely solicited legislative proposals from people in his district. Too many lawmakers get to Sacramento and forget who they are serving.
Commitment to transparency -- Lawmakers may not agree on everything, but they should all agree on open and accountable governance. One big concern in this Legislature will be an increased number of "gut-and-amend" bills at the end of the session -- in late August. In previous years, Democrats had to persuade some Republicans to agree to rule waivers so they could push through gut-and-amend bills. Now they will be able to sneak through overhauled legislation with much less arm twisting or advance notice.
As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. When the session begins in earnest in January, this crop of lawmakers will have an opportunity to change business as usual -- assuming, that is, they want to prove the cynics wrong.