Would-be reformers have filed an initiative that, if adopted by voters, would make the California Legislature one of the largest – if not the largest – legislative bodies in the world. The Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act (NLRA) would require one Senator for every 10,000 Californians and one Assembly representative for every 5,000. This would mean that the Senate would increase from 40 to 3,850 members while the Assembly would balloon from 80 members to 7,700.
The stated goal of this proposal is to reduce the influence of special interests, make our system more democratic and provide greater access to legislative representatives.
While proponents of NLRA may have their hearts in the right place, the plan raises a number of concerns. Special interests, who spent $48.5 million to lobby in just the first quarter of this year, are not likely to be deterred by the greater numbers of lawmakers. Lobbyists, and those interests which employ them, will still have the capacity to track all the members and, because the numbers will provide a certain amount of anonymity, bribery and influence peddling could very well may be more difficult to detect. On the other hand, the ever shrinking news media, which is often the public’s first line of defense for uncovering corruption, will likely struggle to keep up with the activities of nearly 12,000 representatives.
While larger numbers of lawmakers would appear to provide representation closer to home – currently each State Senator represents about a million constituents while Assembly members are responsible for half a million – the greater numbers might make it more difficult to hold politicians accountable. Although the initiative measure provides for the creation of smaller working committees to conduct the more mundane business, the most important matters, like passing a state budget, would be voted on by all legislators. If legislation is approved 5,999 to 5,551, would average Californians have any idea who to hold accountable for the result?
Then there is the question of cost. While the initiative limits pay to $1 a year – working committee members would receive $50,000 annually– would taxpayers be expected to pay for thousands of offices for the new lawmakers? How about cars, travel and other ancillary expenses that are currently reimbursed by California taxpayers?
Probably the biggest hurdle faced by NLRA is one of perception: Most Californians would consider thousands of new politicians to be less welcome than a plague of locusts.
Still, this initiative measure has merit if it stimulates serious discussion of reform. Another idea that receives consideration from time to time is the unicameral Legislature. Since 1937, Nebraska has had a one-house Legislature with 49 representatives, and prominent political leaders of the past have backed the adoption of this system in California. These have included Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh, Senate Minority Leader Ken Maddy and Senator Lucy Killea.
The unicameral Legislature was endorsed in concept by the California Constitution Revision Commission in the mid-1990s, with the recommendation that the current two-house system be replaced with a 121 member state Senate.
However, when it comes to reform of the California Legislature, the gold standard model remains the Texas Legislature, which is part-time, meeting every other year for no more than 140 days. Lawmakers are paid $7,200 per year, although they do receive a per diem of $150 when in session.
California Legislators are full time and are the highest paid in all 50 states.
Over a recent five year period Texas job creation increased by 12.3% while California lagged behind at 7.7%. The Tax Foundation ranks the business climate of Texas at 10 and California at 48 out of 50 states. Surveys of CEOs by Chief Executive Magazine consistently rate Texas at the top and California dead last as places to do business.
Is there a connection between the superior economic performance of Texas and the fact that it eschews a full-time and expensive Legislature on the California model? Many Californians would like to find out.