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A vote for a bigger California Legislature

By doubling the number of legislators -- and cutting their pay -- we could get lawmakers who are more moderate, more accountable to voters and more willing to make reforms.

August 04, 2009|Ryan Coonerty | Ryan Coonerty teaches constitutional law at UC Santa Cruz and is a fellow in public leadership at the Aspen Institute.

California has a well-documented democracy problem. From the free-for-all initiative process to shortsighted, term-limited legislators to the two-thirds-majority vote requirement to pass the budget that leads to prolonged and expensive standoffs, we have turned a state that was once a world-class model of public education, infrastructure and opportunity into a nightmare of under-financed schools, nonexistent credit and national embarrassment.

Most of the proposed reforms -- including a rainy-day fund and nonpartisan redistricting -- have focused on limiting some of the excesses of our California democracy. While these reforms are necessary, in one important way, we should be looking for more, not less, democracy.

California has remarkably few state legislators for our population. Consider the following: In California, a member of the Assembly represents nearly 460,000 people, while in Massachusetts, the figure is 40,000; in New York, 130,000; in Pennsylvania, 61,000; in Oregon, 63,000; in Texas, 162,000; in Arizona, 108,000; and, in the extreme, in New Hampshire, 3,000.

Why does this matter? Because the larger the district, the more expensive the campaign, the more contributions needed and the more difficult it is for legislators to take politically risky stands. And politically risky stands are exactly what we need to get meaningful reform.

Additionally, the many structural problems we have are the result of a lack of trust (often with good reason) in our elected officials. Smaller districts would allow the people to know their legislators better, hold them more accountable and, in return, vest them with more power -- i.e., create a climate in which reforming term limits, the initiative process and the two-thirds budget requirement is politically possible.

How can we double the size of an institution that is less popular than swine flu?

Politically, this is done by cutting our current legislators' salaries in half to pay for it. Legislators make $116,000 a year (with a $173 per diem when in session). That's a base salary almost twice the average Californian's income and far more than legislators in other states. Returning legislative salaries -- by the voters through an initiative to amend the state Constitution -- to a range closer to that of our state's teachers is not only politically popular but the right thing to do.

More important, the timing is right to expand the Legislature and get concrete reform.

First, new legislative districts will be drawn by a nonpartisan panel after the 2010 census, as set forth in Proposition 11, passed by voters in November.

As a result, the districts have a better chance of being more competitive in the 2012 election than in the past, likely making the legislators less partisan and more moderate. This could provide the deal-makers who would find the middle ground necessary to pass the spending cuts and tax increases that our budget, credit rating and common sense demand.

Second, there are mobilized constituencies from groups such as California Forward, Common Cause and the California Business Roundtable that want reform. As fresh candidates for 120 new seats line up, there will be ample opportunity to educate, support and hold accountable a "reform" class of legislators. Following the Watergate scandal, the 1974 congressional class was swept in under similar circumstances, and it passed significant campaign finance, budget and national security reforms that were previously thought politically impossible.

After the governor and legislators put forward a budget last month that is essentially a Ponzi scheme (and is probably unconstitutional), virtually every corner of the state -- citizens, labor, the business community, editorial boards and local elected officials -- wants something to be done. We just need the leaders (and more of them) to do it.

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