PT talks to Michael Villines, California Assemblyman for Fresno, Clovis and Madera about redistricting, the committee process and restoring efficiency to the Legislature.
PT: If most elected officials enter office with an altruistic mindset, why would sitting in a safe seat make them less accountable or effective?
Villines: You know, I think it's almost a personal issue. You have legislators that never lose their effectiveness, some that do, and some that never reach significance. What you have to remember as a legislator is that bureaucracy is a part of government, and you have to drive your agenda, you have to make the bureaucracy work, because the legislature operates on fear. If they don't have to do something, they won't do it.
PT: Why this mindset of fear? What are legislators afraid of that makes them not want to take action on issues that matter the most?
Villines: One thing that scares them is that they think they'll lose reelection. When you get issues like pension reform, air quality and the budget, it means that you have to roll up your sleeves and find a way to make it work. When you do that, you're never going to make everybody happy, so legislators avoid it by playing to their audience. It takes courage to say, "I'm going to deal with this issue, I'm going to bring people to the table and we're going to come up with something that works." People fear that if they get into the issues too much, they'll lose reelection. So, what do they do? They get busy, but they don't make positive change.
PT: As a freshman legislator, what are some of the structural barriers you've encountered trying to accomplish what you set out to achieve?
Villines: As a freshman, you realize how fast you have to start working on building relationships in order to advance your own agenda. You have to remember what you ran for and you have to start making relationships right away.
Structurally, I get frustrated with a committee process in which the minority has no say in the outcome or the debate. The majority party deserves to have the votes on the floor to move an agenda through; the people of California voted that way. But in committee, we should have a more balanced structure. I believe you should see a couple of key committees chaired by the minority party. I think there should be a one-vote difference on committees, not four or five, because I have found people in both parties to be very reasonable. I think it would be better for the legislature to have more deliberative committees, because that debate is essential. Committee debates can really turn people on an issue, but when the minority is four or five down, that's lost.
PT: Does party structure come into play? How does it affect you once you're in Sacramento?
Villines: It does to an extent, but it also makes you focus. I haven't seen an issue that people really feel strongly about fail to get through its own leadership and make it to the floor. This includes the minority party. Leadership tends to have a big-picture perspective, but I've never seen leadership take specific issues and say, "We don't want to deal with that." What you realize is that if you don't take it on quickly and push it forward, nothing happens at all. I've never found leadership to actively try to stop any of that, and if they try, it can actually hurt them.
PT: Redistricting is intended to produce legislators that are more effective. This implies that the people being voted in now are not effective at pushing the agenda. What's wrong? Are the wrong people being elected?
Villines: No, I don't think so. But we do need redistricting to make elections fairer and to make elected officials more accountable to their districts. It is truly a citizen legislature, and it takes all types of people to make the thing work. The structural issue I see is really the committee process where things break down. At this point, I truly believe that we could get rid of the committees and go straight to the floor. There's no reason for committees if we're not debating, amending or working together on the issues. I think it's not as much the people there as it is the system.
PT: But the electorate doesn't see the system; it sees the politicians within it. Is this about reconnecting with the voters?
Villines: Yes, we need a more informed, active electorate. We have driven people away from the process, and it's time to take some bold steps to bring them back. I think redistricting is one of these steps, and I think taking away our paycheck if we don't pass a balanced budget on time is another. We have to be willing to risk some new things to start making things work.
Leadership from both sides should sit down with the governor somewhere and say, "OK, what are the top 10 issues that are destroying California?" Set hearings, set legislative agendas, then fight it out and come up with something at the end of the day. That would rock people's world, and it's not hard to do. I just don't understand why we're not getting that done.
PT: The Mayor of Lodi said that because legislators are called "legislators" they incorrectly think their main job is to make laws. Is he right?
Villines: He's right. You don't need to have 30 or 40 bills, no matter how great they sound coming from lobbyists. I think that if we limited ourselves, we would think more about what we're trying to actually do with the bills we have. I think it would be a good idea to limit it to 20 bills in a two-year session—ten bills each year. It would make people focus and make their bills stronger. Granted, people may want more, but maybe we could build in a mechanism where leadership on each side could say, "Well, we have X-amount of bills outside that we're allowed to use for agreed-upon issues of significance." Then you would stop having 3,000 bills a year, which is a system that isn't doing anyone any good.
PT: Assemblyman, thank you for your time.
Michael Villines represents Fresno, Clovis, Madera and the 29th Assembly District. Villines graduated from California State University, Fresno, and holds a bachelor's degree in political science.