SACRAMENTO -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, accustomed to star billing in his action-hero movies, has suggested paring down the role of full-time state legislators by casting them as part-time employees of the state.
California is one of only four states that have a full-time legislature, and Schwarzenegger contends that its members are too likely to create legislative mischief when they spend too much time in Sacramento.
"One of the things he wants is action," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson. "The idea of a part-time legislature intrigues him. He sees it as one method to focus energies on California's priorities, instead of focusing on extraneous issues that aren't the pressing needs of California."
Schwarzenegger has had a love-hate relationship with the legislature. At times, the governor has pushed his agenda by using his showbiz charms, while at other times his tough talk has come across as bullying.
"It's nothing but a Hitler-type power grab," said Bob Mulholland, a strategist for the California Democratic Party, which controls both legislative houses. "What's Schwarzenegger up to? He wants all the power. People may like him now, but people can quickly become very suspicious."
Republican legislators have been cool to the idea of a part-time legislature, too.
"I think he's serious about reforming government, but I don't think he's really thought this one out yet," said Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman, adding, however, that the governor is well-intentioned.
"My thought is that we're in session way too long," Ackerman said. "The longer we are in session, the more bad ideas get thought up."
The Assembly and Senate are usually in session for seven months, with a monthlong summer break and a longer respite in the fall. When in session, legislators devote at least four days of their week to committee hearings and floor debates, with Fridays supposedly reserved to reconnect with constituents back home.
Critics say California's legislators -- the highest paid in the country, with a yearly salary of $99,000 -- spend too much time in Sacramento and too little in their home districts.
"It's unhealthy for legislators to be spending so much time in Sacramento rubbing elbows with lobbyists," said Ted Costa, the conservative activist who helped launch the recall election that removed Gray Davis and put Schwarzenegger in office last fall.
Costa is seeking to get the issue of a part-time legislature on the ballot, envisioning a system similar to that of Texas, which has a legislature that is in session for 90 days during any two-year period.
California's "legislative system is broken," Costa said, "because our legislators are beholden to special interests."
Ironically, it was for that same reason in 1966 that California, by ballot initiative, transformed its part-time citizen legislature into the first state with a full-time professional legislative body. Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania would follow. The rationale was that full-time legislators have more time to delve into issues of concern to voters and to the business of government, and can thus think and act more independently.
In April, Schwarzenegger told the Los Angeles Times that legislators are "spending so much time in Sacramento, without anything to do, then out of that comes strange bills." California has had its share of eyebrow-raising legislation. A recent proposal sought to incorporate the principles of feng shui in government buildings. Another sought to lower the voting age to 14.
The governor has declined to spell out a specific proposal. And on an appearance on the "Tonight Show" earlier this month, he seemed to back off the subject, saying that "it's just something I mentioned. It's just an idea."
One reason for the sudden coyness may be a recent California Field Poll that suggests a lack of interest in the change among state residents. Slightly more than half of voters oppose the idea of a part-time legislature, the poll found, while a third support it. Nearly half of those polled took a dim view of the legislature, while the governor remains extremely popular.
Switching to a part-time legislature "could weaken the legislature and strengthen the executive office," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. But it may not necessarily eliminate the battle of wills between legislators and the governor. What's more, he and others say, lobbyists may shift their attention from one branch of government to another, namely the governor's office.
"It's easy to attack the legislature, because there is no one face," said Tim Storey, a senior fellow of the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislators. "We tend to be skeptical when we see anything that undermines the coequal balance between the legislature and the executive branches of government."
A legislature is deemed full-time by Storey's organization based on the length of its sessions, size of salaries and staff, and the number of constituents within each district. Massachusetts is one of seven states that has a nearly full-time legislature -- bodies that might work year-round, but perhaps don't have the high "professional" salaries or staffing that the national legislative conference deems as full-time.
No one denies the complexities of governing California's diverse population of 35 million spread across distinctive population centers -- from the sprawl of Southern California and the farming communities of the Central Valley to the dense urban centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the sparsely populated northern reaches.
Each of California's 40 state senators represents some 875,000 people -- more than a member of the US House of Representatives and more than five times the number of a Massachusetts state senator. A member of the California Assembly represents about 440,000 people, about 10 times the number of a Massachusetts House member.
"Hardly any other state compares to California because of sheer size," Storey said. "Every governor wants to have an edge over the legislature. That's the natural tension in the system between those two branches of government, even when both are controlled by the same party. Every governor has become frustrated with their legislators at some point in time."