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Ding Dong, the Witch Has a Short Life Expectancy

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First the good news. When California's Legislature convenes for its next session after the November election, the criminal-friendly persons presently running both houses won't be running them. The voters of California have once again shown that they have much better judgment when they vote directly on issues than they do in electing legislators. With 88% of precincts reporting (as of 5:09 am), Proposition 93 is losing 53.3-46.7.  That measure would have watered down the term limits and allowed present Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to stay on for years.

Now the bad news.

California's Legislature will likely remain severely dysfunctional and fail to represent the people's views on crime issues. The new leaders who emerge for both chambers may be just as bad as the ones we presently have. Term limits alone are like running with only one shoe. It doesn't matter if it's the best running shoe available; you need the other one.

Term limits deal with one reason why a legislature may fail in the basic function of representative democracy -- to represent the views of the people on the issues. When a legislator gains seniority, he may get reelected through his ability to bring home pork for the district and to raise campaign funds from big donors, even though he strays substantially from the median voter's views on the issues. There are limits to how far he can stray, of course, but the variance is substantial.

There is an additional reason, though. California's bipartisan gerrymander has all the districts skewed heavily to one party or the other. The primary is the real election in many districts, and the general election is an afterthought. Without a competitive general election, legislators have no need to be moderate. They can win the primary by playing to the base, and they don't need to track back to the center for the general.

If the Legislature tracked the population, moderate Democrats would hold the balance of power between the Republicans on one side and immoderate Democrats on the other. On those issues where independents and moderate Democrats favor the "conservative" position, which generally includes crime issues, bills would pass. That is not how it is. With Democrats having a majority and no need to moderate, the left fringe gets the leadership positions, runs the house, and makes sure conservative bills do not make it to the floor to be voted on. For crime issues, that means the Public Safety Committees of both houses are stacked with soft-on-crime majorities and chairs at all times. The committees have long been graveyards for good crime legislation, and they will likely remain so. Important, needed changes in criminal law in California must be made by initiative, with all the problems that entails.

To change this situation, we need a reapportionment reform that will (1) be passed by the people, and (2) actually work. Yet another "independent commission" proposal is headed for the ballot, but I am not optimistic on either score. The people have rejected such proposals in the past, and I'm not sure the commission would really be independent if it did pass.

2 Comments

I tend to think that the only solution for the problem of California's politicians is, perversely, more politicians. That is, we need to substantially increase the size the Assembly, and perhaps the Senate, too.

Hear me out now. California's Legislature has never, to my knowledge, increased in size. There were 80 Assembly members 150 years ago for a tiny population, and there are 80 Assembly members today for over 30 million people. Over time, each seat has become comparatively rarer, more expensive to obtain, and more powerful. And once held, no sensible politician will do anything to to upset the status quo.

This is simply an economics problem where demand has been steadily increasing for 150 years, with no increase in supply. Of course it's dysfunctional. We simply need to be a more democratic republic.

This is not a poor state. We can afford to build a new statehouse in Sacramento to seat, say, 400 Assembly members. Even with gerrymandering, that should be enough to have meaningful races up and down the state.

And with that many new people, I'd be happy to talk about ending term limits.

I agree that the California Legislature is too small. A state senator here represents more people than a U.S. congressman. Selling an expansion to the people would be tough, though. As neilalice notes, dealing with our politicians by making more of them sounds perverse.

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