If we Californians ever get around to truly reforming our dysfunctional government, one change should be replacing the two-house Legislature with a unicameral body.
Why? Because at best, the current system is outdated, wasteful and duplicative, and at worst engenders deceptive, anti-democratic gamesmanship.
One example occurred on June 15 as both legislative houses took up, in just a few hours, a new budget package to meet that day’s constitutional deadline. They repeated the budget shuffle again this week after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the earlier version and it was rewritten.
Having two houses do exactly the same thing serves no public purpose, but it can be a smoke screen for sneaky maneuvers.
One common practice is to push what’s called a “spot bill” through one house, then suddenly “gut” its contents in the other house and insert an entirely new measure that is then quickly hustled through the process without public hearings or, in some cases, even notice.
It’s underhanded, but that’s how this week’s budget bills were enacted in the dead of night, including education governance changes that benefited the powerful California Teachers Association and a major hit on local government funds that had never been previously aired.
Concentrating lawmaking in one house would make such hide-the-pea duplicity more difficult.
Originally, we adopted a two-house legislative system because it was emulating the federal government, which in turn was based on the British House of Commons and House of Lords.
The House of Representatives was our House of Commons — a body apportioned by population with brief terms — while the U.S. Senate was our House of Lords, with senators originally elected by state legislatures, but later by voters.
Until the mid-1960s, California’s Assembly was, like the House of Representatives, apportioned by population, but the state Senate was, like the U.S. Senate, apportioned by geography. The largest of the 58 counties got one senator each, while some senators represented two or three sparsely populated counties.
That ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision, which required state legislatures to be apportioned by population.
The California Legislature is the nation’s smallest, in relation to population. Each Assembly district contains upward of a half-million constituents while each senator represents nearly a million — way too many.
A step toward civic sanity would be to emulate Nebraska and switch to a unicameral Legislature of perhaps 200 members with about 200,000 constituents each (and adjusted every 10 years for population growth).
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.