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.