Sometimes a solution is so obvious it may defy detection. Got an obstructionist State Assembly that year after year keeps the Golden State off-track? How about a statewide referendum to terminate it? If the voters can recall Governor Gray Davis, the voters can surely weigh a referendum recalling the entire State Assembly in one fell swoop — a permanent recall with the abolition of the entire chamber.
There is precedent. Nebraska’s legislature has a single house — unicameral. When’s the last time you heard about Nebraska closing hundreds of state parks, eliminating summer school and running up a $21 billion deficit?
There is more precedent. In 2004, the citizens of U.S. Territory Puerto Rico voted 84% in favor of a referendum to go unicameral. U.S. protectorates Guam and the Virgin Islands are already unicameral. At the nationwide level, scores of the world’s most vibrant democracies (from Israel to Sweden to New Zealand) have but a single house of parliament. Same is true of the Canadian provinces and the states of Australia.
Having two chambers at the state level is something of a historical anachronism anyway. Recall that our forefathers’ 1787 “great compromise” created a national Senate for the Union based upon geography to give equal representation to small states, and a national House of Representatives based upon population to give increased representation to states with larger populations. Most states, including California, followed suit when admitted to the Union with a state-level senate based upon geography. But in 1964 the Supreme Court’s famous “one man one vote” (Reynolds vs. Sims) decision required that all state legislative districts — assembly or senate — must be apportioned according to population. Arguably, at that moment one of California’s two chambers became redundant.
It could be argued that one house acts as checks and balances against the other. Can you name one instance? Indeed, some contend that most Californians can’t even name their state legislators — Assemblyperson or Senator. Can you?
Going unicameral would save taxpayers millions annually in reduced salaries and other administrative overhead. Unemployment wouldn’t be a problem as the 80 terminated Assembly members could simply accelerate the routine career path of becoming lobbyists after being term limited out of office. It would even save trees as the log jam of election time direct mail would be cut substantially. And if over time, the disadvantages of terminating the State Assembly outweigh the benefits, the voters can always reinstate the chamber in the future.
What to do with the empty Assembly Chamber on the flood plain of the Sacramento River? Rip out the desks, install cubicles and rent it out as prime “cash cow” office space for lobbyists. Or maybe a local Indian tribe could convert it into a casino with a percentage of the proceeds going to the state. Or keep the desks and use the venue as a lecture hall for a nearby cash-starved high school or community college.
If Governor Schwarzenegger got onto the bandwagon, terminating the California State Assembly could become his lasting legacy. Sure, the Governor has been smacked down twice on statewide initiative campaigns (’05 and ’09). But the third time could be a charm. Go for it, Arnold, spearhead just one more plebiscite to streamline California’s government: “I’ll be back.”