How to Reform the California Legislature and Restore Power to the People

houses-691586_1280 (1).jpg

The Western states, and California in particular, have had a long history of spearheading progressive reforms, especially in their electoral and governmental systems. A former Governor of California, Hiram Johnson, actually ran with Theodore Roosevelt on the Progressive Party presidential ticket of 1912. If you are looking for reform ideas, look no further than the Golden State.

California, with its immense size and natural resource wealth, has always been a corruption-promising realm for unscrupulous politicians and those who buy them. From the early land barons to the Southern Pacific Railroad to mid-century housing developers to the currently ascendant tech oligarchs of Silicon Valley, the self-made rich have always exerted undue influence over the state’s political development. This has prompted resentment and reformist sentiment among the public-spirited of California. These reforms have not always been the wisest or most sustainable. Plenty of criticism has been leveled at the initiative system in particular, but it still indicates a willingness to experiment with ways to combat oligarchic interests.

As was the case in the days of Southern Pacific’s dominance, California is once again falling prey to the over-centralization of policy-making power in Sacramento, where the wealthiest and most connected interests hold sway. This unholy alliance of big government, big business, and big labor stagnates the functionally one-party political system and precludes important reforms on major issues as diverse as budgeting, education, pensions, infrastructure, energy, and more.

As a result, the special interests with the most money - namely, the green-and-blue liberal coastal elites, especially in Hollywood and Silicon Valley - are more or less able to ram through the politically-correct climate and labor and social legislation they like, oftentimes at the expense of working-class and middle-class Californians who sometimes are forced to flee the state to escape the green aristocracy. Unlike Washington, California’s problem lies not in hyper-partisan gridlock, but one-party dominance beholden to the special interests that control the state legislature.

Localism as a Solution

The most cogent solution to this is a return to localism. In California, this means taking power away from the bureaucrats, career politicians, and their funders in Sacramento. This would return a higher measure of control to California’s diverse counties and cities over their own destinies. On issues as diverse as zoning, housing, energy, and labor, rolling back the regulatory power of the central state would be a massive break from current policy trends, reanimating the diverse lower-level political units that have always contributed to California’s --- and the country’s --- political and social dynamism.

The entrenched interests must be defeated, and the system they have constructed must be overturned. Fortunately, there is a reformist political entrepreneur in California working on a 2018 ballot initiative that could do exactly that.

The Neighborhood Legislature

John Cox’s Neighborhood Legislature initiative is a far-reaching reform that increases the number of California state legislators from 120 to 12,000 - yes, that is three zeroes. The gist of the proposal: every State Assembly and State Senate district would be subdivided into 100 “Neighborhood Legislature” districts, each roughly the size of a neighborhood. Therefore, the Assembly members and Senators would each represent 5,000-9,000 people rather than 500,000+ constituents, and as such, it would be far easier for constituents to communicate with their representatives.

But all 12,000 would not convene in Sacramento’s statehouse. Each district of 100 neighborhood legislators would appoint a single representative to go to the statehouse to hammer out legislation, so the number of hands involved in crafting legislation would remain 120. The legislation would be voted upon, though, by all 12,000 legislators.

This is not “indirect democracy,” like the pre-17th Amendment system of State Legislators electing U.S. Senators, because ultimately the directly-elected neighborhood legislators are still the ones casting votes. 120 legislators would serve as members of a “Working Committee” of lawmakers, similar to any other committee that drafts legislation in the statehouse and presents it to the rest of the chamber for approval or disapproval.

One of the perks of this plan would be reduced costs. Cox’s proposal calls for the replacement of legislator salaries with mere $1,000 yearly stipends. The citizen-legislators would work out of their homes rather than being given offices in Sacramento. The combination of decreased salaries and facilities expenses results in $100 million savings per year, as the Neighborhood Legislature website notes. This is before factoring in the near-complete erasure of campaign financing expenses.

Perhaps the strongest benefit of the Neighborhood Legislature is its undermining of the current centralized system, which is hopelessly corrupt and dominated by oligarchic and special interests. Rather than having to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for ad buys and voter data to reach hundreds of thousands of constituents, candidates would now be able to merely tap into local community groups and knock on doors to reach the couple thousand constituents they would be representing. A citizen would not need the financial backing of special interests to win an election.

Additionally, the subdivision of each seat into 100 seats would increase the number of moving parts special interests would need to target in order to influence votes. Sure, they would probably target Working Committee members in order to influence the content of bills; but it would be much harder for businesses, unions or other lobbies to threaten 99 more voting representatives who do not need their money to get elected.

Most importantly, the Neighborhood Legislature system would foster the development of political participation at the local level and directly connect citizens to their state government. As people tend to like keeping their fates in their own hands, it can be well-assumed that the rising influence of local political communities would result in bills and new laws reversing decades of centralization of political power, and returning regulatory, zoning, pricing, and other functions back to cities, counties, and other entities. The very notion of a citizen being able to meet directly with their representative on a regular basis would fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of local democracy in a free republic.

Moving Forward

Of course, these benefits would not be immediately clear to most people, simply because the content of the proposal is so complex. In the run up to the 2018 elections, Cox will be traveling around the state explaining the initiative to community groups of all stripes and temperaments, with the intent of fostering public consciousness about the initiative. Expect him to stop by a community near you.

The State of California and the United States as a whole could use a good dose of political reformism, and this revolutionary reform is well inside the West’s tradition of political experimentation. Who knows, if by some stroke of luck the Neighborhood Legislature passes in California and proves effective at breaking the power of special interests and returning it to the localities, perhaps other states and even Congress will be persuaded. It has been said that California guides America in more ways than one, maybe this time in a good way.

Luke Phillips is a political activist and writer in California state politics. His work has been published in a variety of publications, including Fox&Hounds, NewGeography, and The American Interest. He is a Research Assistant to Joel Kotkin at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.