The Liberation of California’s Legislature

Most political reporters know that the California Legislature is a co-equal branch of government but few know much about the legislators themselves. As a result, all too often they place legislators in traditional categories — eg, “pro-business, “pro-labor,” “pro-environment” — when California’s political world has moved well past those old and uninformative designations.

For example, how should one categorize GOP Assemblymember Catharine Baker, who voted for California’s cap-and-trade legislation? Or Democratic State Senator Scott Weiner, who supports charter schools?

In our view, such legislators should be categorized as “liberated.” Until recently, legislators were rarely able to legislate for the general interest because that meant drawing potentially fatal fire from special interests. What changed? Two things: The growth of direct donations to state legislators from individuals and the establishment of an open primary system.

When reporting on campaign finance the press tends to fixate on independent expenditures, which are headline grabbers and easier to track, but direct donations can be more consequential in legislative races and even more so in the case of sitting legislators. Historically, special interests dominated direct donations to legislators but that started to change in 2011 with the emergence of networks such as Govern For California’s that bundle direct donations from individuals in amounts that in 2018 may not exceed $4,400 per donor per recipient per election. Now, candidates and legislators receive healthy amounts of donations from individuals interested only in good governance. That helps to insulate them from special interest fury and to liberate them to act in the general interest.

The other liberator was Top Two Primary, California’s version of open primary. In closed primary systems, legislators have to worry about an attack from a flank. Thus in a closed primary world GOP legislator Catharine Baker’s vote for cap-and-trade would likely have unleashed a vicious closed primary attack from her right. Likewise for Democrats who vote in ways that could unleash attacks from the left. Open primaries empower legislators to represent more than the special interests who dominate closed primaries.

To uninformed observers legislators of the same party might appear undistinguishable. But in reality they can be very different — especially given the enormous breadth of their responsibilities. California legislators spend $300 billion per year and write laws and regulations affecting nine million students, 13.5 million Medi-Cal enrollees, 20 million workers and 40 million citizens. They write more than two dozen codes, including those that govern education, crime, health, safety, work, the environment, housing, water and food. Given that breadth, shouldn’t one expect intra-party differences?

The liberation of legislators also heralds a return to the power the California Legislature is supposed to assert. There is a reason the Legislative Branch appears before the Executive Branch in California’s constitution. For too long governors have set agendas when their principal responsibility under the constitution is to enforce laws written by the legislature. Now that legislators can be liberated to represent the general interest it’s time they assumed their rightful roles. After all, a California state legislator easily has more impact on the daily lives of Californians than do Members of Congress or US Senators.

Political reporters don’t have an easy job. Legislators considered 2700+ bills in 2017. That’s a lot of ground to cover. But if they are going to categorize legislators they have to review actual legislator behavior.