Fixing California

Posted: May 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Mention initiative, referendum, and recall to political insiders and you'll hear a one-word rebuttal: California! California politics is almost universally portrayed as, well, a little loony.

California stands out from other states of the union, of course, for a host of reasons, from the sheer size and diversity of its population and geography to its more frequent use of initiative, referendum and recall. And California has its problems, no doubt about that.

But loony? Not for its citizen activism. Citizen empowerment is not California's problem; time and again, it has provided the solution.

California voters not only have a right to make these decisions, but they have also generally made the right decisions at the ballot box. Take the oft-maligned (outside California) Proposition 13 in 1978 and term limits in 1990 and the recall of Governor Gray Davis last year. In each case, the voters have been right on the mark.

So, what's the problem? Why then hasn't California's initiative, referendum, and recall made the state a governmental paradise?

Government by Referendum

Initiative, referendum, and recall provide checks on government. They are not an alternative method of day-to-day management. It's our so-called representative bodies that are failing. The increasing use of the various processes of citizen-led democracy is a reaction to politicians' failures.

Blaming California's fiscal woes on voter initiatives ignores the elephant in the room: the spending binge whereby Governor Gray Davis and the California Assembly nearly doubled state spending in less than a decade. When times were good, politicians spent as if there were no tomorrow; when times got tough, they whined and pointed fingers.

As for the budgetary impact of voter initiatives, a study by Professor John Matsusaka of the University of Southern California found that initiative measures dictate only about 2 percent of state government spending. Professor Matsusaka concluded, "[T]he initiative process is a scapegoat for the inability of elected officials to manage the competing demands for public funds in a period of declining revenue."

Not only is the blame unfounded, the initiative process provided Governor Schwarzenegger the very leverage he needed to succeed in starting to put California's fiscal house back in order. Key first steps, borrowing to avert the immediate crisis and taking steps to restructure and prevent future debt, were approved by the voters. And workers' compensation reform, long a sore point for businesses, found a legislative solution only after the governor again threatened the initiative.

Again and again, as readers of my free Common Sense e-letter well know, the problem is the Legislature. California's Assembly defines the term dysfunctional. Legislators are overpaid, over-perked, overstaffed, unaccountable and, thus, out of control. When Governor Davis was being recalled, opinion polls showed the legislature was actually even less popular.

Term limits have certainly helped, creating the only degree of competition in the entire system. But term limits haven't yet fully kicked in. Senator John Burton, president of the Senate, has been in the legislature for 24 years. Other current members have served for as long as 30 years. Finally, with this year's elections, any legislator having served without interruption since voters passed term limits, back in 1990, will be removed.

Best of all, term limits will continue to inject fresh blood into the system cycle after cycle. But term limits are not a panacea. As University of California-Irvine Professor Mark Petracca wrote, "Term limitation is only the first response to the problem of professionalization that increasingly permeates the entire American political system."

Three Reforms

California needs three additional reforms: a part-time legislature, de-politicized redistricting, and smaller legislative districts. All three reforms must necessarily come from citizens through the initiative process, as legislators will (rightly) consider each a threat to their strangle-holds on power.

Governor Schwarzenegger has already floated the idea of a part-time legislator, though this may be more as leverage against the legislature in future negotiations than a serious undertaking. Still, it's a great idea.

Part-time legislatures work well in large states and small. No doubt we'll hear the same sky-is-falling harangues from experts of all stripes -- that the business of government is far too complex to allow amateurs to guide it. Professional legislators must, instead, spend more time with the political cabal at the capitol gaining legislative expertise. Professor Mark Petracca handily dismisses this in "The Poison of Professional Politics":

The oft-touted expertise of professional politicians as representatives is in contradiction with the essential function of political representation in a democratic republic.... With the professionalization of American politics, instead of public engagement, we end up with public estrangement; instead of civic commitment, we foster civic abandonment; and instead of political empowerment, we are left with political confinement.

This Californians know: the copious amounts of time legislators spend in Sacramento hasn't led to any breakthrough solutions to California's problems.

Then there is the corrupt gerrymandering agreed to by both political parties in the legislature. The Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters, dean of the state's political journalists, points out that "with very few exceptions, legislators are in absolutely no danger of losing their seats... due to a bipartisan gerrymander of the Legislature's districts two years ago."

Incumbent legislators are not vulnerable because the permanent apparatus of the party will protect them from serious challenges within their party, while the lop-sided cut of the district means there cannot be very serious opposition from the other party.

Don't expect the same state legislators who purposely drew these lines in their favor to now redraw their maps. Voters must.

Big Turf

Perhaps most important of all, California's legislative districts are far too large. Assembly districts contain over 423,000 people and Senate districts over 846,000 -- dwarfing districts in other states. In fact, Assembly districts are nearly the size of congressional districts, and state Senate districts are much larger.

Compare California's 80-member Assembly with New Hampshire's 400-member House of Representatives, where each member represents about 3,000 people. Isn't a single citizen likely to matter a little more to a New Hampshire representative?

Moreover, larger districts magnify incumbent advantages as the cost of entry goes up for challengers and the advantages of incumbency are worth more. For decades, California incumbents have raised on average about ten times more than challengers have raised in campaign funds.

The solution is not more complicated and counter-productive campaign finance measures, but smaller districts. California needs districts where a person can launch a campaign reaching voters with shoe leather and volunteers. Face to face.

California needs 400 members in its lower house, just like New Hampshire. The 400 assemblymen would still represent more than 84,000 citizens each.

And don't worry: there's no need to spend more tax dollars on the legislature. Not a penny more. Each legislator's pay, benefits, and staff should be cut to fit.

All these reforms will, of course, face fierce opposition from the political class; politicians, lobbyists and interest groups will kick up a huge fuss. But that only confirms the value of these reforms and means that, once again, California voters will have to fix their government directly. That's something they can do.