You hear all the time that California is the world’s eighth largest economy. You rarely hear that, if the state were a country, it would be the 35th largest in the world.California could size and shape the districts to fit the state’s region and their media markets, creating campaigns that would focus on regional needs. Such discussions rarely happen in state legislative campaigns today, since urban areas contain so many Assembly and Senate seats that TV stations and newspapers give elections little coverage. As a result, these contests typically play out in obscurity and often degenerate into "gotcha” attacks based on small personal foibles. By contrast, with multimember districts sized to encompass whole media markets or at least large chunks of them, campaigns would be more likely to receive coverage in the commercial news media and use paid advertising in regional media to make their case to voters, increasing the amount of information available to the public.
The latter statistic deserves more attention. The 34 countries larger than California govern themselves through some form of federal system, with power shared between a central government and regional governments”—states or provinces or prefectures—fitted to places that form communities by virtue of their shared geography, economy, or ethnicity.
But California is not a nation. It has no states. Instead, it has a void—between a distant, if powerful, central government and its numerous and weak local governments.
For all the fights between state and local governments over specific programs and costs, the core problem of the state-local relationship is bigger. Literally. California is too big for the state-local regime that is supposed to govern the place.
When it comes to size, the state has the worst of both worlds. On one hand, the state government in Sacramento, where fiscal power has been centralized, is too distant and unrepresentative to serve a diverse and sprawling population. On the other hand, our local governments are often scaled at the wrong size (too small, in most cases) and are deprived of the tools and flexibility necessary to solve problems—like crime and transportation and education—that cross municipal borders.
In the governmental no-man’s land between the state and local governments are California’s big regions: the Bay Area, the Los Angeles Basin, the Inland Empire, the Central Valley, the Central Coast, Greater San Diego, far northern California.
These are the real units of citizenship in California. Californians, after all, are not Badgers or Tar Heels. We may all live on a piece of ground labeled "California” on the map, but we don’t have the common traditions of cultural belonging and history that shape most other states. We share institutions of government but not a true political community. Unlike the residents of many states, we have no dominant newspaper or statewide broadcast outlets to share the news and debate our future together.
Our regions, however, are more cohesive. They are more like American states than the state of California as a whole. California’s economies, with well-defined labor markets and distinctive clusters of goods and services producers, are regional. So are our transportation systems. And our media. And our weather. Even our sports teams have primarily regional followings. (And regional loyalties run deep and form early. The moment my 2-year-old son, a child of Los Angeles, hears the three terrible words "San Francisco Giants” he begins booing.)
But California’s regions don’t have their own level of government. Instead, the state and local government system at once splits up each region—and pushes regions together that have little in common. The system does this because Californians have failed to reckon with the size of their state.
Put simply, California’s governments don’t fit California. The legislature was set at its current size, 120 representatives divided into two houses, in 1879, when California had fewer than 1 million people. More than a century later, California has nearly 38 million—and a legislature so small that the state has the nation’s most populous legislative districts. Assembly members represent three times as many people as do members of the Texas House of Representatives, which has the next largest lower-house districts, and about 10 times as many as the average lower-house lawmaker in other states. If Californians feel "too little acquainted” with our representatives, and they too little acquainted with us, the fault lies in the numbers and the sheer size of legislative districts.
When it comes to local governments, the problem is reversed. California suffers not from too little representation but from too much. The state is barnacled in governments. It has 58 counties, ranging in population from 1,201 (Alpine) to 10.4 million (Los Angeles). It has 482 cities and 425 redevelopment agencies. It has 72 community college boards and more than 1,000 school districts. It has 4,778 special districts, 2,998 of them independently elected or appointed, covering everything from birth (hospital districts) to death (cemetery districts).
"I currently have 22 people I elect to represent me at all levels of government, and I can’t name them—and I’m president of the California Voter Foundation,” Kim Alexander, the leader of the civic education group said in 2009.
This size mismatch between our state-local government structure—and our regional realities—breeds considerable frustration. The most entertaining expression of this frustration comes in the form of periodic proposals to split the state. However silly the proposal to break the state in thirds or carve the Central Valley away from the coast, the regional frustration is real. Regions can’t get what they need from the distant state government—and can’t bind together their myriad local governments to solve common, regional problems.
A problem of this… well… size can’t be treated merely by transferring funding for corrections from Sacramento to local counties. The governing structure itself must be transformed—and replaced by a new system that makes regions the dominant political units in California government.
This means remaking both state and local government. At the state level, this means a massive transfer of spending and taxing authority to the regions. One way to reinforce that retreat of state power would be to remake the state legislature to represent regions—instead of the current districts that divide up regions.
The new regional legislative districts would elect multiple members—not one member per district as we have today. And it wouldn’t be necessary for every district to be the same size or elect the same number of legislators. As long as the districts have equal populations per legislator elected, they would meet the constitutional requirements of equal representation.
At the local level, establishing regional governments would be an extinction event, with cities, school districts, special districts, and even counties consolidated for greater efficiency and responsiveness to regional needs. Just how this is done should be left to each region.
One way to do this was suggested by the last Constitution Revision Commission—the thoughtful if unsuccessful 1996 effort. The commission recommended giving citizens in California’s different regions both the permission and the tools to remake their local agencies and take more control over their destiny. Under the commission’s proposal, counties and groups would be empowered to set up citizen commissions to rethink their local governments—shuffle and combine their missions, merge or eliminate them, redraw their boundaries. These deliberations would produce regional charters that would go to voters for approval.
The best reason to let regions organize their own governments is that same nagging problem: scale: The regions need different rules because they are of different shapes and sizes. This would be a big departure for the state, but California has happy precedents for regional self-government. One of the state’s biggest successes has been the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates the Los Angeles air basin and has reduced smog in the region.
Of course, restructuring California governance in this way requires constitutional revision, and that in turn requires a constitutional convention or a revision commission. Such a path is difficult, but it can work. The same can’t be said of the current method of reform—adding, via ballot initiative, more rooms onto the Winchester Mystery House that is California’s current governing system.
While the details of building such systems should be left to each region, the principles at work should be clear. Decentralize at the high level of state government. Consolidate at the bottom levels of local government. And empower the regions—the true states in a state big enough to be a nation.