Fixing California's Broken Legislature

Why the Neighborhood Legislative Reform Act may be the Golden State's best hope for meaningful change


The approval rating for the job the California Legislature is doing remains pitiful, ranging in the past year or so from a record-low 9 percent to 16 percent. That percentage of Californians will no doubt support any possible idea you place before them on a public opinion poll, which should put in perspective the quality of support for the work done in the state capitol.

Many proposals to solve California's problems build on this understandable disdain for the state's legislators. For instance, some Republicans are promoting a "citizen legislature" idea that would turn California's full-time Legislature into a part-time body. If we can't get rid of them, we might as well put up with them only half of the year. Unfortunately, such an approach, while offering an appealing poke-in-the-eye, will end up empowering the executive branch and lobbyist class. Something will fill the void while legislators are home earning a living.

But there is a real "citizen legislature" idea that might soon be circulating as an initiative for the November 2012 ballot. The Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act is counterintuitive: It dramatically increases the number of Assembly members and state senators. The initiative would provide thousands of new neighborhood legislators, who would elect a smaller group that would actually go the capitol and do the normal business of legislating. It sounds wacky, but pay attention to the details before rendering judgment.

As the initiative explains, "Our state Legislature does not serve the interests of the citizens. The Legislature only serves the special interests. Prior attempts at reform have all failed. The problem is that our Legislative districts are too big and cost taxpayers too much money. Our Legislators represent too many constituents. The average assembly district in the other 49 states has approximately 50,000 citizens. The average assembly district in California is nearly 10 times larger…"

California's districts are so large that regular citizens do not have the hope of influencing their legislator. Winning elections in such large districts means raising lots of cash and candidates can only do that by becoming beholden to special interests. The initiative idea—funded initially by former GOP presidential candidate and venture capitalist John Cox—would flood the state with citizen legislators/representatives who represent smaller numbers of Californians.

The initiative dramatically reduces the pay and budgets for these members, so this would not create legislative empire building. That addresses the key concern critics raised after I wrote about this notion last April.

I think Cox should start with some public relations before circulating an initiative given that few people understand the basic issue and how dramatically it would change the political landscape. Many people are going to have the same "oh my goodness" reaction I had after looking at the numbers. Although not as radical as the California proposal, the New Hampshire statehouse has 400 representatives. Those reps generally publish their home phone numbers and personal emails and are responsive to the citizenry. In California, good luck getting a callback from a lowly legislative aide, let alone from the actual legislator, who probably is too busy attending an industry fund-raiser or union golf tournament.

In New Hampshire in 2008, more than a third of that state's lower house members were replaced during elections. The same turn-over number in California that year was zero. New Hampshire has one lower house representative for every 3,290 people compared to California, which has one Assembly member for every 483,000 people. New Hampshire has the best representation, but the second-least representative state (Texas) has a representation ratio three times better than California's.

The concept can be applied locally as well, even though the proposed initiative deals only with the state. California has many big cities with at-large council races. Candidates have to run citywide race and that requires big money to get one's message across throughout the city. A larger number of city council members, elected from districts, would result in more responsive councils. Same goes for boards of supervisors.

The neighborhood legislature idea will be opposed by the special interest groups that currently run the show—the unions, developers, environmentalists, and other groups that find it easier and more cost-effective to buy a small number of legislators than to deal with a more democratic situation. I can see the attack ads showing more legislators puffing on cigars and making backroom deals. But a larger number of legislators will mean fewer inside deals and greater accountability. It will result in the election of more representatives from the far left and far right, but who cares? We might see new ideas and end up with gutsier legislators who earn their incomes elsewhere and aren't motivated by the fear of losing their seat.

California currently has far more Democrats than Republicans. This reform won't change that balance. Unlike some other reforms proposed by self-styled moderates trying to change the rules in order to elect more moderates, this one only seeks to give the public more say in the state's governance rather than trying to rig the game to get a desired partisan result. It's anyone's guess how this will play out from an ideological sense. The idea should gain the backing of reformers from the left and right.

Furthermore, the neighborhood legislature idea takes money out of the process without restricting anything. Campaign finance restrictions have, ironically, expanded the role of money by forcing legislators to spend so much of their time raising it from smaller donors. Cox's proposal reduces money by making districts so much smaller that it's far cheaper to win office. It creates more elected officials and thus devalues legislative office. That makes it more likely that those who seek office are in it for the right reasons rather than for vainglory.

Californians might have a hard time wrapping their mind around a Legislature with hundreds or even thousands of members, but it's the only idea I've seen that might actually work.

Steven Greenhut is editor of CalWatchDog.com.

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  1. That actually sounds like a pretty good idea dude. I think I like it. Wow.


    1. That actually reads like sincere sentiment!

  2. I’m speechless.


    1. I’ve never read so much and learned so little. The summary was good, though.

      “One forecast it is safe to make: the study shows whatever else the new sustainability mission does for EPA, it aims to be a much, much more important?and powerful–federal agency than it is, even now.”

  3. Cleansing fire.

  4. What ever happened to the old fashion idea of term limits?
    Four to eight years and then back into the working class to be productive?

    Not just for CA but for every elected position in the country. While it wouldn’t stop all of the dirty politics we wouldn’t be saddled with the same established for life reps we have now.

    1. Legislators are just a product of their listless, spendthrift consituents…and they’re not going anywhere.

    2. Term limits may actually exacerbate that problem. Politicians with term limits have a shorter time to cash in on special interest money, so it’s likely they’ll invest more of their time on that, especially in their final term.

      1. And, if given a single term, what would they use said special interest money for?

      2. Empirically, though, that turns out not to be a problem — or if it is, it’s swamped by opposing effects. I had my objections to term limits too, but now we have actual data showing that the longer they stay in office, the bigger spenders they become.

    3. Here’s how I would do it, at least at the federal level.

      ONE 8 year term for the Senate and ONE 4 year term for the House. THEN, to ensure the legislature remains loyal to constituents, a yearly vote (during primaries?) of confidence requiring 2/3 majority to boot them.

    4. Opponents of term limits cite two main objections:

      1. Facing term limits, officials are always running for re-election or election to a new position. My response to that is to ask when did being a career politician become an acceptable thing? The idea is to do your community service and go home to your real life, so politicians need to have real lives outside of politics (and we should avoid electing any candidates who don’t).

      2. The amount of time in any particular office is too short to learn the ropes, much less be effective, and forget about any “legacy.” I observe that most people in the private sector may get 6 months of probation, if that much, to learn the ropes in a new job. After a year or so, they are expected to be completely proficient or they are shown the door. Great things are expected of them in their second and subsequent years. Why should we set the bar lower for government officials, especially the elected ones? Most terms last at least two years. If, in that time, someone hasn’t been able to master the job and show significant achievement, elect someone else. Otherwise, reward the incumbent for a job well done. Why is such an approach so hard for politicians to understand or accept?

      1. California has had term limits going on almost twenty years and they have been a complete disaster.

        Your point #1 was the main selling point for them but has been a complete fantasy. Not one citizen legislator has been elected in the couple of decades since they were enacted here.

        My own solution is to:

        1)Replace the bicameral legislature with a unicameral one. The idea of a separate Senate at the state level is ridiculous and just prevents accountability.

        2)Make the legislature super part time. Like meeting for a couple of months every other year. The near permanent secession that he have now just gives the bastards too much opportunity to fiddle with laws and spending.

        3) Create a unified executive branch, with all of the executive positions being appointments of the governor. Again, the goal is to make someone responsible and accountable for the government’s performance.

  5. Nothing can fix Californias problems except Californians. And Californians don’t look likely to change any time soon, so I expect this train to continue into the abyss. The best the rest of us can hope for is unlike Greece, the federal government may eventually just cut stop shoveling money into their broken system.

    1. I agree – the CA legislation is giving its citizens exactly what they asked for.

      The only dysfunctional part is that damn reality thing that keeps intruding.

    2. Exactly. The approval rating was at this level in the last election, and I’m pretty sure no incumbents got voted out.

  6. “Unfortunately, writes Steven Greenhut, such an approach, while offering an appealing poke-in-the-eye, will end up empowering the executive branch and lobbyist class.”

    This is a danger, I admit, but is it an inevitability? If our legislature were truly part-time, they could only pass so many laws, so they would have to prioritize the legislation and simply decline to pursue a great many bills that today’s pols propose in an attempt to look as if they are busy doing the people’s business.

    The problem with our legislature is not that it passes too little legislation, but that it passes too much — especially of the kind that micro-manages individual lives and entail fantastic levels of spending. What we need is a legislature that has just enough time and resources to handle the really substantial issues. This won’t keep politicians from being ambitious and either wanting to leave a “legacy,” or to position themselves to “graduate” to higher elective office, but moving to a part-time, “citizen legislature” might at least stem the flow of toxic legislation from Sacramento, reducing it from a flood to merely a manageable torrent.

  7. This is exactly what California needs!!!!


    1. Okay.. Now that I’ve read the proposal, I’m taking back my comment.

      what this proposal does is add a Supreme Soviet to the California constitution. Leave it to the CA GOP to twist a good idea (increasing representation) all the way to full retard…. oy

  8. Some Republicans are promoting a “citizen legislature” idea that would turn California’s full-time Legislature into a part-time body….Unfortunately, such an approach…will end up empowering the executive branch and lobbyist class.

    I’m not so sure about that.

    Take a look at Nevada. If I understand this properly, the legislature only meets once every other year–and the session only lasts for 120 days.


    Since lobbyists only have 120 days once every other year to gain any traction, they just don’t have many angles to grip to try to move the process one way or another.

    Lobbyists have to sit around and wait for two years for the next legislature, and if a legislator doesn’t do what the lobbyists want, the lobbyists have two whole years to wait before they can orchestrate any consequences for that. It’s like tellin’ kids that if they don’t do what their mother tells them, you’re gonna spank ’em–two years from now. How effective is that likely to be?

    It might help, too, to go to a unicameral legislature–because giving lobbyists the ability to kill legislation in either chamber just doubles their chances of influencing legislation.

    As far as there being more executive power should the legislature be diminished, I’m not sure I see it that way either. A little more executive leadership might be just what the doctor ordered.

    The legislature manages to cause most of our budget problems and–through the initiative process among other gimmicks–tends to dodge most of the responsibility for some of the dumber things they do.

    Sure, the legislature should keep its hands on the purse strings, but if the only politician the people of California really hold responsible come election time is the governor, then why not give more power to the only person that’s really being held responsible?

    I’m on board for the suggestion that many of California’s problems are because the government has too much power–hell, I’m drivin’ that train.

    But going back through when Pete Wilson was governor, I think it’d be a tough argument to make that California’s problems are because the governor has had too much power vis-a-vis the legislature.

    1. The other thing about a legislature that only meets for 120 day every other year is that the members spend their time in their communities the rest of the time and away from the capitol hive mind. Which I suspect is the thing that big government douche bags like Chapman fear most about the idea.

  9. Texas’ legislature meets for 5 months every 2 years and yet they somehow manage not to descend into anarchy. FL gets 100 days every year and we aren’t exactly run by special interests (except Disney) and a strong executive.

    1. One does not “descend into anarchy”; rather, one ASCENDS to anarchy!

      1. And then immediately after the ascension, one immediately falls to a despot because one cannot protect one’s property.

  10. Hmm, if only there were states with part-time legislators to look at for examples.

    Say, when does the TX legislature meet again?

    1. Say, when does the TX legislature meet again?

      Too fucking soon.

      One perhaps-drawback of the part-time legislature is that it opens up whole new fields of corruption, in that the legislators are now free to gambol through extremely lucrative part-time/no-show jobs funded by the lobbyists of their choice.

      May not be unique to part-time legislatures, but its damn sure a problem for them.

      1. Maybe Texas should make it unconstitutional to legislate in odd numbered years as well.

      2. If I recall correctly, most of the TX lege is ‘self-employed’. There’s a strange prohibition on being employed that I’m too lazy to look up.

      3. Yet another reason to support gambol lockdown!

  11. I’ve always believed that a state legislature should be unicameral, for starters. Why do we need a 2nd house with just slightly different apportionment rules?

    Once again, Nebraska points the way…

  12. How about a legislature that meets every five years for 30 days, with violations of the Constitution (ie 99 of 100 laws, let’s say for reference) in any laws it passes constituting insurrection and being a capital crime for all sponsors and co-sponsors

  13. All of these ideas are interesting but there is only one way to address the problems: Reducing the power of the state. If the State of California didn’t have such plenipotentiary powers over its citizens then the legislature’s antics become far less damaging.

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  15. Nebraska’s Unicameral has 49 senators that meet for 90 days per year. They can conduct hearings and discuss issues with their constituents at other times, but no votes or bills get introduced during any other time.

    We have saved a lot of money in salaries and support for the second house that isn’t there anymore.

    We have no conference committees. There is only 1 rep from each district, so that there is accountability to the voters, afterall you only have to keep track of one senator.

    They are elected in non-partisan elections. No R’s vs D’s or D’s vs R’s crap. As there are none of these, then problems get fixed rather than used as wedge issues to drive their respective base voters.

    I have had the opportunity to testify for and against bills, to help write laws, to help write regulations to implement laws. Only 49 people means lots of fellow Nebraskans get to participate.

    I recommend this system to any other state.

  16. The proposal in this post reminds me of when state legislators elected USA Senators. Why did we switch to the direct election of senators?

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