Is California Ungovernable?

Mike Madrid
Partner at GrassrootsLab, and a nationally recognized expert on Latino voting trends. In 2001, named one of America's "Most Influential Hispanics" by Hispanic Business Magazine.

As Californians anxiously watch our state government convulse with the difficulties of righting its financial ship, a new discussion of reform has sprung anew in the most unfortunate of places — the legislature itself.

When the legislature starts talking about reforming itself, that’s usually a sign of great concern, and for good reason. Few broken systems have ever been capable of self reform – Soviet Russia comes to mind!

That’s not to say it can’t be done — but it is to say it shouldn’t engender anyone’s confidence that it will. One might even question whether the effort is anything more than political theater.

Outside groups are calling for Constitutional conventions and significant systemic reforms are being bandied about as rational discourse for the first time in a century. And lawmakers, both current and former, are hell bent on making sure it doesn’t happen.

Still, the unintended consequences of a constitutional convention could be calamitous, say legislative leaders, and I have to admit — they may be right.

Unfortunately, they are precisely the wrong messengers to be delivering that message. They have no more credibility with the public than the proverbial fox in the henhouse.
Last month, as city leaders throughout the state convened to discuss priorities and the state of the state, the discussion of reforms took center stage. Business leaders and legislators (both current and former) spoke to the leadership group. More than one asked the inevitable question: Is California Governable?

Not one of them said “yes” and that’s why they cannot be looked to for answers. More importantly, it’s why they should not be looked to for answers.

I have recently been reading about, and inspired by, John Adams, one of our country’s founding fathers and the first rebel allowed to visit with King George after the Revolutionary War. In this meeting, Adams bristled at the King’s deeply held belief that man could not govern himself without a monarchy. It simply was not possible for King George to imagine any other way. It was all he’d known of government, and of society.

In much the same vein, when posed with question of how to govern California, legislators will invariably recommend measures to increase their influence – or indeed, relevance. I recently heard one legislator (whom I greatly respect and admire) argue that, in essence, the legislature is too weak to show its true capacity. If given the tools to perform, it certainly would.

I have to admit I was stunned. Term limit extensions, initiative reforms and a lowering of budget vote thresholds were offered up as his solutions to making California governable again.

Let me make my opinion very clear. California is indeed governable. That it is not being governed now speaks volumes to why those that believe these half-measures are a means for reform should not be heeded.

We have been witness to, and forced to endure, an institution that sought to consolidate power by creating a professional class of full time elected officials to govern the state some thirty years ago.
The results of that action have been disastrous.

In seeking greater power, the legislature accomplished its aims. Ironically, the legislative branch is arguably the one branch of government most constituted towards the corrupting effects of money and special interests. In securing its own power, it essentially secured the power of those who most benefit from the political gridlock that grips our state. That same political class now asks us for more power under the pretense that it will do the right thing and fix itself.

I have spent the better part of my career in and around the Capitol. Given my years spent observing its inter-workings, and were I king for a day, here is what I would do to fix the state:

Return the legislature to a part-time institution. The legislature must be part-time to end the caste system of political power that is choking the state. Once a politician can make a living by doling out the public’s goods, what can we expect but they become beholden to the biddings of moneyed special interests? Moreover, if anyone doubts that all but the 4 respective leaders are actually working full time during the entire year – I invite you to come spend a day with me to see if, in fact, we don’t have a part-time legislature already. We are simply paying them full time wages and allowing them to plot their political future with the free time we afford them.

Increase the size of the legislature. The legislature must be larger (yes, larger) to diffuse the power ensconced in the hands of so few. This suggested reform will be the most controversial — but it is the most fundamental to genuine reform short of throwing out the Constitution and beginning anew. Imagine having your legislator serve in a capacity similar to a small town mayor, that must return after a few months to live in his or her district, work a real job, and answer to voters and not party bosses or special interests. By increasing the size of the legislature, California can diffuse power away from party leaders, mitigate the influence of special interests and the high premium placed on campaign contributions.

A larger legislature will allow for more honest, accountable and transparent elections. Only in California do state senators represent more people than members of Congress – are we really surprised when they give us worse results? Indeed, it would appear that the more people one is elected to represent – the less they actually feel compelled to represent them. A larger, part-time legislature would allow for only one committee assignment per member to focus their attention on, develop a working and institutional memory and knowledge on a specific issue they have the experience to work on, and are required to have another job or profession as their primary source of income.

This diffusion of power is truly what today’s reformers are seeking but are afraid to say it. They risk their livelihoods and standing by suggesting their lawmaking friends have to find a real job. They lack the ability to see the legislature for the corrupted and irreparably damaged institution that it has become. They simply can not fathom an Assembly and Senate that meets the purposes for which it was created, because it has been at least thirty years since it has worked that way.

Finally, if – and only if – these two other reforms are enacted, then repeal term limits. Term limits are a cure for a symptom and not the disease. The intent (and I worked on the campaign to enact them as a volunteer and as a professional consultant to protect them when the legislature sought to fool voters out of them) is to prevent a professional political class. Voter desire for term limits is based almost exclusively on limiting the powers of politicians that have run amok. It is a fool’s errand to believe that some iteration of term limits in the form of extensions, variations on what house members can serve in, etc… will be supported by the voters. Its even more foolhardy to believe that such a “reform” would actually work. That’s because voters want the power of a self serving legislature limited. Once you eliminate the financial incentive to become a politician and diffuse power such that voter accountability is more important than party loyalty, then the only term limits you will need will be elections – just as the founding fathers envisioned.

Is California governable? Yes, of course it is. But to get there will require a return to the structure that made it so. Before we can honestly address our problems as a state we must first admit that the full-time “professional” legislature experiment has been a disaster.

Let’s be honest about this and get back to governing the state.

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