Sept 26, 2002

The California Legislature

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.

Earl Warren (1891-1974)

We have just been treated to the spectacle of the California legislature being unable to pass a budget until two months had passed since the deadline. Payments to people and other creditors to the state were about to be stopped. The only thing different about this year was that it took two months. The same fiasco has happened for as long as I can remember. The legislators do nothing all year and then, at the last minute, submit an avalanche of bills. The two houses of the legislature are the site of partisan political wrangling between Democrats and Republicans. It is not only ridiculous, it is stupid, unnecessary and does little more than make the legislators look as if they are doing something, when in reality they are accomplishing very little.

When the US constitution was written, the framers were from the various states that considered themselves as independent entities. Most came out of the English tradition where there were two major classes of people, commoners and the nobility, represented in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Our founding fathers, therefore, set up two houses: a Senate which represented the "sovereign states" and House of Representatives which, supposedly, represented the people. There were to be two senators for each state and the representatives would be apportioned by population.

When states set up their legislatures they, with the typical foresight and ingenuity of politicians, set it up the same way, with a senate representing the counties and a legislature representing the people. This insured lots of jobs for politicians and insured, in the state senate, that a small number of wealthy farmers and ranchers had as much clout as a large number of city dwellers. In 1964 the US Supreme Court dynamited that notion and enunciated the principle of "one man, one vote." It mandated that state senates also had to be apportioned by population. What, then, is the purpose of two houses? Damned if I know. It merely complicated the legislative process and made jobs for politicians; all of which is good for politicians and a disaster for the people.

In the 1930s, George Norris wore out two sets of tires campaigning for a unicameral legislature in Nebraska. Norris was one of those rare politicians who believed that main purpose of a legislator was to improve the lives of his constituents. He was a Republican in the days when the Republicans represented the rural residents, who voted solid Republican, while the city dwellers voted Democrat. He was a senator for 30 years and was a major mover for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, that provided electricity for the rural south. He supported Roosevelt and was termed a "New Deal Republican." The referendum to give Nebraska a one-house legislature was passed by the voters, and in 1937 Nebraska had the first, and only, unicameral legislature in the nation. There were similar referendums in a number of other states, including California, but they failed. It is worth mentioning that most provincial legislatures in Canada are unicameral. At the present time, Nebraska's legislature has 49 Senators and is non-partisan: no Democrat Vs Republican wrangling.

I did some simple calculating and found that salaries and expenses for Nebraska's legislators costs each citizen about one cent per year, while California's legislators cost each Californian 52 cents. You may say that 52 cents isn't much, but remember that California has a population of 33 million people, so it costs at least 16 million bucks just to pay the politician's salaries and expenses. You could support a lot of worthwhile things for that amount. More important, we could have fewer politicians screwing up the state as they usually do at the end of the session. It would also help if we had a governor who represented the people rather than those who contribute big bucks to his campaign fund.

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