Legislation introduced last week ought to alarm all Californians already concerned about the effectiveness of the Legislature and its lack of true representation of voters.
Senate Bill 163, by state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, was ostensibly introduced to clear up “ambiguities” in determining where legislators live. It would allow them to live far from the districts they are supposed to represent.
This bill stems from the case of Sen. Roderick Wright, who was convicted – and finally, expelled from the Senate – for claiming to be “domiciled” (which means the place you intend to live) in the district he was elected to represent while, in fact, maintaining his living quarters far away. Tellingly, the area he was supposed to represent, Inglewood, is not only a good distance away from his true domicile, Baldwin Hills, but was also was far different economically and in quality of life from his elected district.
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Representation should be about electing a leader of a community who understands the needs and issues in that community. Taken as a whole, these leaders bring to bear those individual experiences of their community to a larger legislative body, theoretically forging policies that benefit all of those communities in the most effective fashion. That is the theory of true representation.
Sadly, that’s not the case in California today. Right now, with 80 assemblymen and 40 senators, the Legislature has the largest districts in the world and is considered one of the least representative bodies in the world. The size of the Legislature was set in 1879, when the state had fewer than a million residents. Now that we are almost 40 million, more needs to change than the definition of “domicile.”
Despite California’s burgeoning population, we still have only 40 state senators and 80 Assembly members. What proportion of their voters can these elected officials possibly know? What percentage can they meet? How many local issues, cares and concerns can they possibly relate to? And now, if this new bill passes, they won’t even have to live in their own district. Their detachment from the voters will be complete.
Let’s face it. When districts are as large as they are here, the real powers in the state are those that provide the funding, manpower and other campaign support for the elected. Surveys repeatedly find that vast majorities of voters believe special interests and other funders have the most sway over actions of the Legislature, not the voters.
This can’t continue. The Golden State got its name not only from our physical beauty, but from the opportunities and promise of a golden quality of life here. Crony control and outright corruption by narrow special interests have eroded our educational quality, chased away good jobs, made the cost of living prohibitive and eroded our freedoms and opportunities. The government generates record tax revenues, yet still runs a deficit – which includes massive unfunded and poorly funded retiree health care and pension benefits.
There are successful states in the Union that maintain a closer ratio of representatives to voters. But, of course, California is taken in the opposite direction by a Legislature that enjoys its distance from voters and works incessantly to widen it.
Now is the time to act. There will be a new governor elected in 2018. It makes no sense to elect a new governor without changing the priorities and representation of the Legislature. That’s a prescription for more of the same. We can’t keep doing this to ourselves. Now is the time to change.
John Cox is a businessman and resident of San Diego. He is the chairman of the Neighborhood Legislature Inc., an organization supporting Legislature reform. He can be contacted at John@NeighborhoodLegislature.com.