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More Representation Could Break Legislative Gridlock

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It should tell us something that it was big news recently that the Legislature and governor actually were able to agree on a state budget. The bicameral state Legislature functions efficiently only as a vehicle to frustrate, delay and water down needed legislation. The initiative process is too complex, too confusing and there are too many issues to resolve for the voter to have anything like an educated opinion on more than one or two. Campaign techniques have tended to cloud the process further, exasperating the public.

For instance, this past year more than $100 million was spent on the various insurance initiatives. Yet it took a bitter 6-month court battle to determine what the voters had said and to determine whether it was constitutional. And Proposition 103 is still not fully implemented.

It took the murder of five small children and the wounding of 30 others before the Legislature could be moved to act on gun legislation--and even that was watered down, the consequence of heavy gun-lobby pressure.

And only recently the Legislature painfully hammered out a compromise on the budget, seeking convoluted means to finance education and other badly needed programs even though the state treasury has a $2.5-billion surplus. But the final solution still requires voter approval and cannot be put into full force until after the June, 1990, primary election. This is the direct result of conflicts and contradictions between knee-jerk, reactionary initiatives.

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State legislators frequently duck controversial issues in order to avoid political accountability. They know that by leaving the decision to the people, whose ill-advised votes frequently produce unwise, unworkable, contradictory and/or unconstitutional legislation, they can come in quietly in succeeding years and amend the voters’ choice to suit those interests who finance them and whose interests they truly serve.

The rhetorical question must then be asked, “If the Legislature would do its job, would there be any need for these confusing initiatives?” The problems are serious and reforms are needed. Oddly enough, the solution may be fairly easy if the state’s voters and their leaders would just face some simple facts.

First, the people of California are the most under-represented in the nation. While the average ratio of state representation to citizens is about 1 to 50,000. California’s ratio of one state representative for every 233,491 is out of line. Texas and New York are the next most under-represented states, but even they have manageable ratios of 1 to 92,734 and 1 to 83,213 respectively. California has more than tripled its population over the past 50 years, but the size of the Legislature has remained the same.

The intent and purpose of representative government is frustrated by the present system; districts are too large, representatives are too far removed from their constituents and cost of elections are too dear. The cost of the election process favors incumbents who can provide favors for their financiers.

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Second, the bicameral Legislature is no longer necessary. The U.S. Senate represents the states (each state having two senators regardless of size or population). In contrast to pre-1965, when California state Senate representation was apportioned by counties, not population, the upper house no longer has any independent significance.

I propose that we abolish the bicameral Legislature and elect an enlarged unicameral House of Assembly, chaired by the lieutenant governor, with one legislator for every 100,000 Californians. This measure would increase the number of state representatives from 120 (80 Assembly members and 40 senators) to 280 at present population levels. The smaller districts would bring the legislators closer to their constituents and reduce the significance of money in legislative campaigns. Further, the single house would eliminate overlapping committees and the duplication and delaying of legislation. California cities and counties have had single-house legislative bodies for many years.

We also should limit access to the initiative process to those measures that have been submitted to three successive sessions of the Legislature. Many states have modified their initiative process, limiting its misuse and abuse, placing the legislative burden back where it belongs--with the state legislature. Too often the initiative process in California has become the vehicle for frivolous and irresponsible proposals of fringe groups and political extremists.

A large legislative Assembly is difficult to manipulate and control and therefore more responsive to its constituency. Conversely, small districts can be effectively canvassed by an energetic candidate with a small group of supporters, thus reducing the power of money in a campaign. Since personal-contact precinct work has always proven more effective in voter canvas than mass media, the under-financed candidate can present himself or herself on more fair footing with the affluent. The representative political process is thereby improved, legislation expedited and accountability to the constituency increased. This would produce a more responsive, efficient, less expensive and more effective legislative system for the nation’s wealthiest and most populous state.

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