Part-time Legislature? Santa Fe Advice For Visiting Schwarzenegger

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to reform the full-time California Legislature by cutting the lawmakers back to 90 days a year. The “girlie-men,” as he taunted them in the budget battle, have too much time on their hands and so they’re always wasting away in Sacramento writing “strange bills.”

Arnold’s return to lovely, hispanic Santa Fe (“Twins” was filmed here.) as a guest of Gov. Bill Richardson should be of serious concern to government-minded Californios. New Mexico has just the kind of legislature El Terminador seems to be advocating. It meets in regular session for only 60 days in odd years, plus 30-day financial sessions in even years. Its 112 members are unsalaried, and their stingy per diem barely meets expenses.

The record will show these noble citizen legislators are not, by and large, “girlie-men.” Arnold, for instance, probably does not want to mess with Sen. Shannon Robinson of Albuquerque’s crime-plagued Central Ave. district, who is often presumed to be armed.

Shannon is the proud sponsor of New Mexico’s new law allowing people to carry concealed loaded firearms. He argued it as an anti-crime measure, since calling the cops apparently is not enough in his district. When it passed he gave the sign of the bull moose (thumbs on temples, fingers extended upward), emblem of his loyal (though possibly fictitious) group of gun-toting, hell-raising, beer-drinking native cowboys. So Arnold would not want to call him a “girlie-man” under the wrong circumstances.

And Shannon, a Democrat, is one of New Mexico’s liberals!

In all fairness, and for the sake of preventing public shootouts, it should be mentioned that Arnold did not mean all legislators are “girlie-men.” The epithet had a peculiar California context. Like most things in politics there, it was straight from La-La Land. It was a term invented by actors on Saturday Night Live in a satire of Arnold’s first hit, “Pumping Iron.”

Impersonating that satire of himself, he used the term twice in a July speech to a crowd of supporters at a mall in the southern California city of Ontario. According to news reports, he called on voters to “terminate” (at the polls) those who oppose his budget plans. The legislators, he said, “cannot have the guts to come out there in front of you and say, ‘I don’t want to represent you. I want to represent those special interests: the unions, the trial lawyers’ … I call them girlie-men. They should get back to the table and they should finish the budget.”
Now, on the matter of “strange bills,” Schwarzenegger told the Los Angeles Times, “I want to make the Legislature a part-time Legislature. Spending so much time in Sacramento, without anything to do, then out of that comes strange bills.” He told NPR all he gets from the legislature are bills “cleaning up the language of a bill that we passed two years ago. . . . If they only are here part time they get down to real business, not to just hang and come up with ideas, ‘Well, what shall we do today?'”

Problem is, the unpaid short-time citizen legislature in New Mexico gives the same impression. Floor sessions during the first month of any regular session are endless forums of triviality and inaction. Thousands of bills are introduced, and most go nowhere. A look at any final edition of the “Daily Bill Locator” shows that about one third of the bills never even receive a committee hearing.

Of more interest to Schwarzenegger, however, may be the fact that the part-time New Mexico Legislature is submissive in the face of a strong governor. So far, Richardson has gotten almost everything he has asked for – tax rejiggering, consolidation of executive power, special approrpriations.

Of course, the New Mexico Legislature is led by Democrats like Richardson, and the California Legislature is not led by Republicans like Schwarzenegger. But the legislative reform – and the ballot initiative is being proposed by the same people who first came up with the recall election that put Schwarzenegger in office – could change the legislative picture.

Republicans active in the business world who otherwise eschew running for the full-time legislature, it is often assumed, would reconsider if it only met 90 days a year. This is not the case, however, in New Mexico, where the legislature more often attracts retired people, plus school personnel with time off and the usual assortment of ranchers, lawyers and hometown insurance or real estate brokers.

In the meantime, Arnold might profit from another New Mexico example, former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson. He dealt with the Democratic legislature simply: he just vetoed half the bills passed. Now there was a “terminator” in action! And I would wager Johnson was more macho in his way than Arnold. Gary climbed Everest last year at age 50. He still does “ironman” triathlons. Get pumpin’, Arnold.