Dan Walters

Opinion: Fix state? Here are 16 ideas

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper failed last year to get a measure on the ballot that would ask voters to split California into six separate states.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper failed last year to get a measure on the ballot that would ask voters to split California into six separate states. Associated Press file

Silicon Valley tycoon Tim Draper’s quixotic campaign to reassemble California into six new states didn’t go anywhere, so he shifted into soliciting ideas to “Fix California.”

Draper received 427 suggestions and narrowed them to a “stately 16” finalists, one of which will be the winner with “perhaps a chance to get on the 2016 California ballot.”

Some of the 16 are relatively simple procedural changes, such as making the Legislature’s activities more transparent or placing more information on candidate and ballot measures in an online voter guide.

Others are more significant changes with the potential for broader impact, such as allowing ballot measures to qualify via electronic signatures, or giving voters access to public funds to electronically donate to candidates or parties of their choice.

But a few would, if enacted, truly transform California – perhaps not as much as reconfiguring it into six states, but fundamentally nevertheless.

One echoes Draper’s six-state notion by congealing California’s 58 counties into six “super counties.”

Another would replace the current two-house Legislature of 80 Assembly members and 40 senators with a 120-member unicameral Legislature, à la Nebraska.

A third would create thousands of “neighborhood legislative districts,” thus expanding the Legislature from 120 members to 14,000 members, who would then elect 120 members of a “working committee.”

The most far-reaching proposal, however, would replace California’s governmental structure with the parliamentary system used by most of the world’s democracies, with the governor the leader of the Legislature’s majority party or a coalition, like the British prime minister.

All of the 16 are interesting, certainly, and demonstrate, if nothing else, that many Californians sense – accurately – that such a large and complex state is not being governed as well as it should be.

Some of the lesser proposals, such as forcing the Legislature to comply with the same transparency laws it imposes on local governments, are just common sense. And if we can file our income tax returns electronically, we should be able to vote and sign petitions that way.

Fundamental structural changes are more difficult, but it’s high time that we consider them. We have a system that hasn’t changed in more than 150 years, other than becoming more infuriatingly complex and unresponsive. Nor have we changed a county boundary in more than a century.

Six counties may be too few, but replacing counties with perhaps a dozen regional governments that would absorb thousands of single-purpose special districts makes a lot of sense.

Our Legislature is, believe it or not, too small. Some state Senate districts are hundreds of miles long and all have nearly a million constituents, which reduces them to blips on a computer screen. A unicameral Legislature with perhaps 300 members would be better, and we ought to at least consider a parliamentary system, which could be both more empowering and more accountable, with politicians less able to pass the buck.

There are no magic solutions, but California has always been willing to embrace progressive change, and it’s time we made some fundamental reforms in the way we are governed.