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Press Release · December 3, 2007

Weighing Options For California Legislative Reform

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 3, 2007 – Most likely voters are unhappy about the performance of the California Legislature. But according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the reforms offered for improving that performance can have mixed results, and they face an uphill battle to passage.

The report, Legislative Reform, pinpoints charges of fading competence, increasing partisan gridlock, and declining efficiency often brought against the legislature, and examines three reforms aimed at overcoming those shortcomings: relaxing term limits, transferring the redistricting process from the legislature to an independent commission, and reducing the supermajority requirement for the budget.

Relaxing term limits for legislators might improve members’ grasp of issues but would decrease turnover (a central, original goal of term limits). Transferring the redistricting process to an independent commission might result in a larger number of competitive districts, but the impact of such a change on partisanship in the legislature is unclear. Reducing the supermajority requirement to approve the budget would almost certainly make the process more efficient but could undermine bipartisanship—since the two-thirds requirement forces parties to cooperate to pass the budget.

Some background information on the context and potential of reform efforts:

  • California’s 1990 term-limits law is one of the strictest in the country. Among states with two-chamber legislatures, only Oklahoma limits total service to fewer years. Since 1999, at least 70 proposals to relax term limits have been offered around the country, but the only changes have come from the courts or from state legislatures themselves.
  • Twenty states have laws empowering commissions to make redistricting decisions. In September 2007, 66 percent of California’s likely voters supported the idea of establishing an independent citizen commission for redistricting. However, in 2005, 60 percent of voters rejected Proposition 77, which would have given redistricting to a commission of retired judges.
  • Since 1933, the California legislature has required a supermajority to pass the state budget. Only Arkansas and Rhode Island have a similar requirement. In 2004, Proposition 56, which would have lowered the California budget threshold to 55 percent, lost by a two-to-one margin.

In the report, author Eric McGhee, a PPIC research fellow, also offers some recommendations for policy design and briefly discusses alternative reforms, including limits on campaign donations, open primaries, cross-filing, and non-partisan elections.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.