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Sacramento Spotlight: Comprehensive Good Governance Reform Part 1 – Unicameral Legislature

Thursday, September 19, 2013

California’s State Legislature is now on interim recess until January. In its absence, the “Sacramento Spotlight” will shine on something different: not bills, but good governance reform.

California has, for better and worse, been at the forefront of policy and governance.  What California does often ripples through America’s political psyche.  However, more recently, good governance in Sacramento has been an oxymoron – state lawmakers held in anything but high esteem.  In the most recent PPIC survey, the legislature has a 22-point net disapproval rate among likely voters. It’s very apparent that the voters aren’t please with the fruits of the legislative labor.

To some, the problem lies with the voters consistently sending poor legislators to Sacramento. Others say it’s a lack of good people willing to run. Here’s a third possibility: a lawmaker-to-citizen ratio that’s out of whack: 1 to 465,000 in the State Assembly (8 times higher than the national average) and 1 to 931,000 in the State Senate (6 times the national average).  There’s no way legislators can a) realistically interact with a vast majority of their constituents or b) possibly reflect even a majority of their district’s communities of interest.

One obvious solution would be for California to increase the number of representatives.  If the Golden State were to go the New Hampshire route in the Assembly (1 to 3,291 people) and the Minnesota route in the Senate (1 to 79,000 people), it’d require 10,640 Assembly districts and 472 Senate districts.  To even reach the national average district size, California would need 612 Assembly districts and 242 Senate districts.

That said, a better option might exist – in the corn-covered state of Nebraska.

Passed by ballot initiative as a constitutional amendment in 1934, Nebraskans eliminated their state House of Representatives to become the first and still only state (since the colonial days) to have a unicameral (one-body) legislature. If California were to do so, it might help snap the Golden State out of its current legislative letdown.

“One person, one vote:” Following the 1950 census, California’s State Senate map looked decisively orderly (see below), with Senate districts apportioned by county.  The idea behind this was the “Congress” perspective – a lower chamber that represents the people and the upper chamber that represents the state.

1951SD

This all changed with the landmark Supreme Court case, Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which found that the Equal Protection Clause and 14th Amendment demanded that states apportion legislative districts “as nearly equal of population as is practicable.”  This effectively affirmed that political sub-divisions of states are not sovereign, but rather units of the sovereign states. The “Congress” perspective ceased to exist at the state level and one major advantage of the bicameral system—the ability to represent and give a voice to different constituencies—was eliminated.  Bicameral systems make sense when competing sovereign entities (for instance, the people vs. the states) require representation.  However, within unitary state governments this is no longer necessary.  Thus, while bicameralism is logical at the national level, Reynolds v. Sims makes the second chamber obsolete at the state level as now both chambers are effectively representing the same, over-lapping constituencies.

Strengthen the Representative Power of Legislators:  Creating 120 equal districts in one chamber (as opposed to California’s current formula of 40 Senate and 80 Assembly districts) would strengthen the representative bond. 120 equally populated districts (approximately 310,000 people per district) would yield a total legislative district size relative to the state’s population of 0.8%, which also happens to be the national average. Thus, without actually changing the size of the overall state legislature, a simple change in format can better connect the representative with his/her constituents, enabling the prospect of better governing.

In addition, this would geographically shrink the districts – meaning, apportionment would better reflect core communities of interest.  No more would California have Senate District 2, which currently stretches from Del Norte County on the Oregon-California border to Marin County just north of San Francisco, or Assembly District 26, which currently includes all of Inyo County and stretches west to include portions of Tulare and Kern Counties.  Even Los Angeles County, home to 11 Senate Districts and 23 Assembly Districts, would fare better at keeping communities of interest together.  Currently, a single LA County Assembly member represents everything from Agoura Hills/Calabasas—stomping ground of the Kardashians—to West Hollywood.

Improve Legislative Responsibility, Efficiency, and Effectiveness:  Streamlining the process is seen as a vice to those who fear that unicameral legislatures would lead to simple majority rule and poorer quality legislation. However, at present, California suffers under a legislative yolk that not only is clunky and opaque, but also is prey to special interest meddling. Streamlining the system ensures that a) the process remains highly transparent and b) accountability is firmly in place.

With two chambers, one always has to wonder who is in charge of the legislature as the dual bodies create more opportunities to shield responsibility and accountability.  For instance, with a duplicative series of complex rules and procedures and with the necessity of conference committees to smooth out legislative language differences, each chamber effectively releases accountability to the other chamber to the point where neither chamber is actually responsible for their own or the other’s actions.

Better transparency enables voters, the media, allies, and opponents to scrutinize votes and activities by legislators and hold the legislators accountable for their actions since the single chamber is responsible for all legislating. It also works to limit special interest influence by limiting legislative points of entry.   This bicameral phenomenon is noted in research showing that a complex legislative process yields overspending and higher deficits. As William Heller notes, “the greater the number of players whose opposition can kill legislation or who can influence its contents, the greater number of deals that must be cut to get a budget passed, other thing being equal.”

Simple majority rule shouldn’t be a concern as process rules effectively require more than just a simple majority to pass a wide range of bills and motions (such as California’s constitutional requirement of a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes).  Forcing every member to take a stand for or against every piece of legislation will do more to improve quality than adding an additional layer on top of the process.  For instance, currently, legislators in one chamber will vote for some bad bills if the author of the bill has multiple bad bills introduced a) knowing/thinking the other house will kill it and b) not wanting to anger the author.  And there’s no research that suggests bicameralism yields better policy quality; in a comprehensive assessment of bicameralism’s effect of policy quality, Michael Cutrone and Nolan McCarty concluded, “when viewed through the tools of contemporary legislative analysis…the case for bicameralism seems less than overwhelming.”

Elevates the Legislature: A unicameral legislature will also elevate the legislature to a co-equal with the executive—the intent of republican governance. Under bicameralism, a two-thirds supermajority is required in both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto.  An astute governor can work one chamber, as California Gov. Jerry Brown did in Sacramento’s recent flap over prisoner release, which means the executive is usually the winner. With just one chamber, the leadership of the chamber is effectively on equal footing with Governor. Elevating the legislature’s stature also has the added benefit of making it more visible to the voters and citizens and hence, further increasing scrutiny.

Increased Civic Engagement: Political science research also suggests that unicameralism could lead to more favorable civic engagement.  And in California, which most recently saw a VEP turnout rate of just 56% and received an overall Election Performance Index score of just 53% in 2008 (4th worst in the country), increased civic engagement can only lead to better governance. According to Robert Jackman (1987), unicameralism is a key institutional variable that increases voter turnout.  He theorizes that the more powerful an institution is, the incentive to vote increases.  In a follow-up paper on voter turnout, Robert Jackman and Ross Miller (1995) found further evidence that unicameralism increases civic engagement.  In a 2004 paper by Carolina Fornos, Timothy Power, and James Garand, which examined voter turnout in Latin America, they find that unicameralism also increases turnout to the polls.  More engagement means more educated voters and possibly, more discerning elections.

Good governance must start with good representation. And for California, the obvious need for improvement suggests a revamped unicameral legislature just might be a good idea whose time has come.

Check-out the previous “Sacramento Spotlight”: AB 110 – The Not-So-Balanced Balanced Budget

Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno