What happened to California?

In my car I like to spend my time listening to things that are as interesting and useful as possible. One of the recurring items on my playlist is the Commonwealth Club podcast. A couple of days ago I listened to this lecture by William T. Bagley. Bagley was a California Asssemblyman for a number of years in the sixties and seventies, and he talks about how things were different back then, and particularly how much less polarized California politics was. What is interesting is that he essentially champions the old smoke filled rooms as being temples of good, pragmatic government and fair compromise.

There are a number of very specific laws and events that he cites that led California from good government to the near collapse that it is in today. The first is the lack of personal relationships between Assemblymen, especially across the asile. Bagley cites a few reasons for this. For starters, the asile itself! Before Prop 13, the Assembly was not segregated by party, so Democrats and Republicans would sit next to each other. Simply sitting next to someone every day fosters at least a basic level of cooperation, and it’s harder to turn the knife when you have to look the guy in the eye the next day.

Bagley makes special mention of lobbying rules restricting lobbyists spending more than $10 per month on an Assemblyman. This led to the end of the longstanding practice of legislators from boths parties meeting for lunch and at other social events that were paid for by lobbyists. Without the lobbyists, there was no one to organize and pay for all of these social events, so Democrats simply stopped socializing with Republicans.

The other big area Bagley thinks led to this travesty is structural changes in the composition of the Assembly. The six year term limit led to legislators that didn’t know each other, and didn’t have enough time to begin to trust one another. Furthermore, he thinks that six years isn’t enough to understand how the legislature works, to formulate a personal cause, and develop the alliances necessary to pass legislation to advance it. Worse, because these relatively junior legislators don’t understand the government well enough to make their own decisions on issues, they tend to vote strictly according to the position papers put out by their party, rather than trying to find a compromise across party lines.

The only ray of hope Bagley cites is redistricting. Some time ago, both parties got together to redistrict California to create virtually exclusively safe seats. This led to the primaries becoming the important election, and so candidates appeared that could win their party’s primary, but that were not necessarily appealing to the electorate as a whole. With a legislature full of members who only fear a primary loss, there is much less incentive to compromise with the other party. Luckily, California will be redistricting in a few years in a nonpartisan way, and hopefully we will see more competition from the center in these seats.

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05 2010

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  1. bill bagley, jr. #

    Thanks for mentioning my father’s wisdom and advice concerning the dysfunctional state of affairs in California. I have many fond memories of fishing trips and get togethers with many of my Dad’s political “foes” while he was in the legislature. It really was an atmosphere of concilliation, with some heavies, like Jess Unruh, thrown in to keep things interesting.
    Not to get off subject, but in addition to the podcast, he also has written a book on the same subject. I can get you a copy or it is available from the Berkeley Public Policy Press (a entity of UC Berkeley) “California’s Golden Years: When Government Worked and Why”. He donates all proceeds to UC.
    Send your address to my email address, if you would like a copy.

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