Politics & Government

Is California ready for a 12,000-member legislature? This governor candidate thinks so

Republican John Cox, a candidate for governor, brought his campaign to Fresno on Tuesday, addressing supporters of the Maddy Foundation.
Republican John Cox, a candidate for governor, brought his campaign to Fresno on Tuesday, addressing supporters of the Maddy Foundation. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

A state legislature made up of 12,000 members? That’s the idea being pitched by Republican businessman John Cox, who brought his campaign for governor – and his unconventional “Neighborhood Legislature” proposal – to Fresno on Tuesday.

Cox, a tax attorney and CPA from San Diego, said he expects to submit about 900,000 signatures to the secretary of state next week to qualify for next year’s election ballot. It’s an idea he’s been working on for about five years, and it has become a centerpiece of his run for governor. It was also a major focus of his talk to financial backers of the Maddy Institute, a Fresno-based nonpartisan organization for public policy analysis, improving the performance of government and increasing voter engagement. The institute is named for Sen. Ken Maddy, a Republican member of the state Senate from Fresno who was widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats.

“We’ve got to get the lobbyists and fundraisers out of the system,” Cox told The Bee, bemoaning the high campaign costs that he said force legislators to spend more time raising money than working on behalf of their constituents. “Why don’t people run for office? It’s way too expensive, it occupies your entire life. ... And it’s savage and it’s nasty and it’s brutish and it’s partisan.”

While Cox also touched on education and the effects of California’s taxes and regulation on businesses, his legislative proposal garnered most of the attention from his audience.

The vast sums of campaign money from special interests create a corrupting influence on policymakers. Cox’s proposed solution is to divide each of California’s legislative districts – 40 Senate districts and 80 Assembly districts – into 100 microdistricts, each with its own elected legislator starting in 2022. Each of those 100 representatives in a district, in turn, would select a member to serve on Assembly or Senate working committees “to do the sausage-making,” Cox said of the day-to-day chores of hammering out legislation in Sacramento.

Once bills come out of those working committees, they would typically require a vote of the full legislative membership – all 4,000 senators and 8,000 assembly members – according to a summary of the ballot measure by the state attorney general. Legislators would vote electronically from their home neighborhood districts and their votes would be made viewable by the public.

Current Assembly districts have almost a half-million people, and Senate districts are roughly twice as populous. Because of sheer size and scale, “people never get a chance to meet their leaders or ask a question,” Cox said. Breaking districts into much smaller pieces, he added, will enable a return to retail, shoe-leather political campaigning. “It makes every legislative district so tiny that money is not an issue. You’re going to get elected by going door to door. You’re not going to spend money on television.”

The vast majority of the legislators would be volunteers receiving $1 a year; those chosen to serve on the Senate and Assembly working groups in Sacramento would receive pay that is capped at 120 percent of California’s median household income.

If that formula was in place now, the state median income of just under $62,000 in 2015 would translate to legislative salaries of $74,181 per year. State Assembly and Senate members currently receive an annual salary of about $104,000. Members of the working committees would also reimbursed for living and travel expenses of up to $200 per day.

Those working group members could also be removed by a two-thirds majority vote of the other legislators within their larger Assembly or Senate district.

The attorney general’s analysis of the measure forecasts that it would save about $100 million a year in legislative expenses – a result, Cox said, of lowering legislators’ salaries and reducing staff in the Capitol. But the analysis adds that counties would pay tens of millions of dollars more in election costs every election year.

If current legislative districts are too large for retail politics, Maddy Institute director and Fresno State professor Mark Keppler asked, why not just do away with a two-house legislature and simply have a single house with 120 smaller districts? Cox replied that he doesn’t think that’s enough to get big money out of campaigns, insisting that districts of a few thousand people are more manageable for less expensive and more personal campaigning.

He was similarly skeptical when Keppler asked about prospects for campaign finance reform. “The Legislature used to be a place where people went to do great things,” Cox said. “Now Sacramento is an all-consuming money chase.”

“Our founders envisioned a government of the people. Not of the check-writers, not of the big businesses, not of the big labor bosses,” Cox told The Bee.

And he’s putting plenty of his money where his mouth is. Cox is not only jump-starting his gubernatorial campaign with $3 million of his own money, he’s also poured $2 million into the effort to get the Neighborhood Legislature qualified for the ballot. “I’m not just doing the rhetoric,” he said as he addressed questions about his proposal. “I’ve got a solution.  I believe this is the solution that will change things in this humongous state.”

Cox’s Neighborhood Legislature measure requires having 585,407 validated signatures of registered voters to make it onto the November 2018 ballot. “If it doesn’t pass next year, I’ll bring it back in 2020 and in 2022, if necessary,” he said.