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California lawmakers OK a bill making it easier for them to live outside their districts

Former state Sen. Rod Wright was found guilty of felony perjury and voting fraud charges four years ago after a jury found that he lied about his address on voter registration and candidacy papers in 2007 and 2008.
Former state Sen. Rod Wright was found guilty of felony perjury and voting fraud charges four years ago after a jury found that he lied about his address on voter registration and candidacy papers in 2007 and 2008. The Associated Press

Before they left town last week at the end of the 2018 legislative session, California lawmakers sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill that makes it easier for them to live outside the districts they represent.

Senate Bill 1250 by Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, addresses decades of dispute about where California’s 120 state legislators are allowed to live when holding office. The measure says the address listed on a lawmaker’s voter registration will be accepted as the primary residence — as long as he or she actually lived at the address for an unspecified period of time.

“This bill is about allowing all legislators, who must travel and live in our state capital, to be effective leaders for our representative districts without the fear of being targeted by overzealous prosecutors or political adversaries,” Bradford wrote in a letter supporting the measure.

Bradford’s bill says lawmakers must be registered to vote in their districts, but also specifies circumstances that cannot be used to prove a lawmaker lives outside his or her district:

  • Owning or renting a residence outside the district.

  • Claiming a homeowner’s tax exemption at an address outside the district.

  • Paying for household insurance, utilities or other household services for a home outside the district.

  • Having kids in school tied to an out-of-district address.

  • Having a spouse or “intimate partner” living outside the district for employment.

  • Receiving mail at a residence outside the district.

The bill drew opposition from legislators who believe the measure gives lawmakers a chance to move away from their districts and live in wealthier areas.

“My community is a community that’s often been used as a dumping ground, as a wasteland,” Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, said. “When colleagues don’t reside in their district, we forget the problems we have to face.

“We legislate on experience,“ she added. “We can’t make it easier to skirt the law.”

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The issue has troubled lawmakers before. Former state Sen. Rod Wright was found guilty of felony perjury and voting fraud charges four years ago after a jury found that he lied about his address on voter registration and candidacy papers in 2007 and 2008. He resigned from the Legislature and later served a brief stint — 71 minutes — in jail.

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, was attacked in his 2014 Senate campaign after The Sacramento Bee reported that he did not live in the Pocket-area condo at which he was registered to vote, but with his wife and children outside his district in Natomas.

During the debate over Bradford’s bill last week, lawmakers explained that they wanted the ability to live outside their districts to keep their families together.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina del Rey, said that the bill is a way for her to continue serving in the Legislature while keeping her daughter close to her. Burke, who is the single mother to a four-year-old daughter, flies each Thursday with her daughter back to their home in Marina del Rey to spend the weekend.

“We talk about getting women elected, but there are challenges that women of childbearing age face,” Burke said. She plans to enroll her daughter in school in Sacramento once she is of age, so they can live together during the legislative session, which runs from January to September. “My mother, who was also a lawmaker, had to decide between her job and being a full-time, present mother. She chose being a mother. Forty years later, women should not have to make the same choice.”

Yvonne Burke, who is Autumn Burke’s mother, was a member of the House of Representatives representing Los Angeles for six years. She chose to take a job as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors when her daughter was five.

Previous versions of the bill would have prevented courts from bringing enforcement actions against lawmakers if they failed to live within their districts. Common Cause and the ACLU both dropped their opposition after the bill was amended to allow prosecutors to pursue the cases.

“I don’t really see any difference from existing law,” said Nicolas Heidorn, Common Cause’s policy and legal director. “This bill provides greater specificity to the types of things lawmakers can do without retribution .... We do believe that lawmakers should have to live within their districts. The original bill would have made the residency requirement unenforceable.”

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