Initiative would create citizen Legislature

JULY 8, 2011

By STEVEN GREENHUT

A former Republican presidential candidate and long-time political reformer said Wednesday that he plans on leading a statewide initiative effort designed to expand the number of politicians in the state by reducing the size of political districts for Assembly and state Senate candidates. The idea is modeled roughly on the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which has the nation’s highest 400 members — each which enjoy the modest salary of $200 for every two years.

The goal, advanced by John Cox, a Chicago-area activist and businessman who now resides a good bit of the year in San Diego County, is to create more of a citizen legislature. “Everyone can see the money chase is corrupting the political process,” he told me Wednesday at the Hyatt in Sacramento, after he met with legislators in the Capitol. He doesn’t believe that politicians are necessarily corrupt, “but the system is corrupting.”

I wrote about the idea of expanding representation in this column in April after meeting with representation activist Michael Warnken at the Libertarian Party convention in Lake Tahoe, where I was keynote speaker. Warnken joined us at the Hyatt Wednesday. Consider these facts (based on Warnken’s data) that I reported: “There’s one representative for every 29,151 Iowans (as of 2008 data) and one Assembly member for every 459,458 Californians (now 483,000). There’s an elected representative in New Hampshire’s house for every 3,290 of that state’s residents, which is the best level of representation in the nation.”

California has an enormous representation problem, which is why the Libertarian Party approved a resolution calling for representation reform. But this idea should appeal to a wide number of voters whatever their political persuasion. Unlike many other reforms, such as the ones advocated by moderate business groups such as the Bay Area Council (constitutional convention, open primary, majority-vote budgets, etc.), this is not designed to get a specific political outcome. The council, for instance, tried rigging the election rules so that Californians would elect more “moderates” from both major parties.

Rather, Cox’s idea is designed to make it easier for average Californians, whatever their political persuasion, to know their elected officials and influence public policy. California’s districts are so enormous that there is little chance for average voters to know their representative or to have any influence. Only professionals, who can afford campaigns financed by special interests (unions, corporations, environmentalists) have a chance to run for office. Where I used to live in Los Angeles County, there were approximately 2 million residents for every county supervisor. How representative is that? Such a situation enhances the influence of special interests and turns money into the most important political factor. The coming initiative only deals with the state Legislature, but Cox believes the concept can be expanded to the county board and other elected bodies.

In a true citizen legislature, money doesn’t matter very much. Regular people with regular jobs can run for office. People will know the legislator. It’s easy to throw the bum out. Local concerns win the day. It’s a brilliant way to reform the system and it will create a more responsive Legislature. It offers no threat to the state’s dominant Democrats given that there are more Democratic voters than Republican ones. But it does offer a specific threat to special interests, and unions in particular, which will be sure to campaign against Cox’s initiative, if he raises the funds to get it on the ballot. He is looking toward next November.

Cox said the initiative language, still being discussed, would probably be something like this: The size of districts shall be no more than 10,000 people for the Assembly and 20,000 for the Senate. He foresees a very large Legislature and an executive council for each body similar in size to the current Legislature that would do much of the day-to-day work. A key point is that the legislators would not get full-time staff and big budgets as they do now. Yes, there would be more politicians, but there would be a smaller class of professional politicians.

The thinking is that regular people, who work in regular jobs, would then dominate Sacramento. These citizen legislators would better understand the needs of their constituents and would be less likely to serve as the cat’s paw for unions and big corporations. Cox notes that about 2,000 bills are introduced in each legislative session. He believes that number would go down even as the number of representatives would go up because the newly elected legislators would be there for the right reasons.

In the current system, he said, voting percentages are declining because people know there is no way they can affect the political process. After his reform, “people will come out of the woodwork to participate.” His argument to the Left: Under this system, the rich won’t have all the power. To the Right: Broader representation will lead to less social engineering and better fiscal management. To everyone: All of a sudden, money won’t be as big of a factor and lobbyists won’t be able to have the control they now have.

Perhaps this is a bit idealistic, but the Founding Fathers would be aghast at how unrepresentative our supposedly representative democracy has become, especially in California. Here’s an initiative that might get mocked at first, but upon closer examination it makes an inordinate amount of sense and should appeal to people from every political persuasion who are seriously interested in reform. Stay tuned for more on this one and for the resurgent career of John Cox.

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  1. Jean Finet
    Jean Finet 7 July, 2011, 14:30

    I like idea, except that with a population of 37,253,956 (Wikipedia), that would mean there would be over 3,725 members of the state assembly. Maybe we should try to implement this idea after the state is split up into four or five separate states.

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  2. So. Perry
    So. Perry 7 July, 2011, 15:01

    An expansion of the Legislature is plainly necessary. It’s ridiculous to think that members of the California Senate can deal with our state’s issues when they represent more people than our Representatives in Congress. I do believe, however, that full-time legislators are necessary. Running the state of California is simply too complex of an issue to take on as a side job.

    Also, the contention that voter percentages are declining is objectively false. Turnout in 2010 was the highest since 1994: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/11/local/la-me-vote-tally-20101211.

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  3. Barb
    Barb 8 July, 2011, 09:04

    Glad to see people attempting to come up with possible solutions. It’s refreshing to say the least. So far, I’ve seen two potential solutions:
    1. Break up the state.
    2. Add more politicians to represent smaller districts.

    Not convinced that NO.2 solution would resolve the corruption by adding more politicians, but would side more with NO.1 solution to do the trick. However, I’m open to hearing more!

    Reply this comment
  4. Cicero
    Cicero 9 July, 2011, 11:41

    It is not hard to get 4,000 people together for a concert of a sports event. A 4,000 member lower house is a no brainer. All they need is a remote control for voting with three buttons: yes, no or abstain.

    Reply this comment
  5. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 9 July, 2011, 20:47

    Why not a unicameral legislature with districts conforming to Congressional Districts? We could elect two members from each district and save a lot of time and wishful thinking while we’re at it.

    The state of California is never going to break up into two or more states, anymore than Texas is going to secede or break itself up into 4 separate states. Why? Because the other states won’t agree to such a change in the balance of federal power.

    Very simple….

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  6. J.J. Israel
    J.J. Israel 11 July, 2011, 20:20

    1) Increase the number of reps.

    2) Instead of having the Grand Jury system a great idea, make it a meaning system.

    3) Instead of maintaining a frustratingly circular system, create an objective, outside body to oversee the Supervisors and all agencies under them.

    Go Michael Warnken go! Thank you for bringing fresh, new and realistic solutions to the table. Now let’s work on implementing them!

    Reply this comment
  7. John Cox
    John Cox 11 July, 2011, 21:00

    As the article says, the 3700 Reps would elect an Executive Council that would be roughly akin to our current legislature. The Senate would be the same. Each current Rep or Senate district would thus be divided into 50 separate districts which would elect a member of the Executive Council. The difference is that these EC members would be elected from small districts themselves, with little or no campaigns necessary – thus no fundraising.

    The large legislature would not need to meet often; they would have to approve legislation passed by the EC of each chamber. The EC would be directly accountable to their own districts as well as the greater legislature.

    A unicameral legislature is no solution; with 120 members, the districts would still be 300,000 plus and would require a lot of money.

    Full time legislators are overrated. A legislature should pass a budget, set general policy and be a check on the executive and judicial branches. It doesn’t and shouldn’t run the government. Full time, professional legislators try to run the government so that they can raise lots of money; that’s why they introduce thousands of bills and stick their noses into so many issues, making them more complicated than is necessary. They get sponsorship from campaign funders; that’s why they do so much that is extraneous. A legislature is like a board of directors. The board of Boeing or General Electric doesn’t need to know how to make a jet or a jet engine. They are there to set policy and oversee what the execs do.

    We are not talking about adding any more politicians; we are exchanging corruptively influenced highly paid professional politicians who spend a lot of time fundraising and campaigning with citizen legislators who are relatively unpaid (with no benefits) and who serve out of duty and honor.

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  8. JEQuidam
    JEQuidam 12 July, 2011, 17:06

    The comparison of California and New Hampshire provides a stark contrast. To better understand the importance of smaller electoral districts, please read “Freedom and Legislative District Sizes”
    http://thirty-thousand-org.blogspot.com/2009/10/freedom-and-legislative-district-sizes.html

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