Policy Today magazine Cover
March 1, 2006 - California Ed.

PT talks to California Assemblymen Keith Richman and Joe Canciamilla about their plan to break the partisan gridlock in the California Legislature by means of a novel political force: the people.

PT: You've put forth the idea of a "citizens’ assembly" to fix some of the more pressing problems in the state. Could you tell us why, and where the idea came from?

Canciamilla: It came primarily from the frustration we've felt with the dysfunction in the Legislature that keeps us from solving California's serious problems.

Richman: Whether you're talking about education or the state's fiscal situation (which is not yet resolved), the lack of infrastructure investment, health care, affordable housing, energy—there's a long list of problems that the Legislature has not addressed. And it's largely due to partisan gridlock and legislators' unwillingness to compromise, to break out of their agendas set by special interest groups on each side.

Canciamilla: So we started about a year ago asking, "How do we address that core problem?" And then we started to ask, "OK, well how do you fix the system itself then?" We began looking
at structural problems and realized that dealing with those problems one by one—whether it's independent redistricting or things like that—would not be the solution.

Richman: Besides the independent redistricting reform plans, we've introduced reforms for term limits, the budget and other important reforms, but none have gained any traction in the Legislature. And so, I think that fundamental political reform is very important if in fact we're going to reinvigorate or renew our representative democracy. Right now, it's not working.

Assemblyman Canciamilla and I spoke with many people over a year's time or more looking for ways to implement fundamental political reform. And there are only a few options. One is through the Legislature, and the second is through the initiative process. The third is through Constitutional Revision Commission, which was done in the early 1990s. And the recommendations from the Constitutional Revision Commission have essentially sat on the bookshelf and collected dust.

Canciamilla: We came across the citizens' assembly that had been done in British Columbia. It would be focused very narrowly on those issues and systems pertaining to how we elect our representatives—things like redistricting, term limit reform, proportional voting and parliamentary types of representative democracy. There's a wide range of subjects we could potentially get into.

PT: Tell us about the British Columbia model.

Richman: The citizens' assembly has been done in British Columbia very successfully. We were made aware of what had gone on there by the New America Foundation, and then spoke directly with some of the key people who had been involved in the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly. We saw that a citizens' assembly here made up of 160 average folks—randomly chosen to deal with electoral reform issues—in which the Legislature and individual legislators have an inherent conflict of interest—would be a good process to bring forth proposals for electoral reform.

So, for example, the citizens' assembly could not deal with tax policy. It could not address Proposition 13, Proposition 98 or education funding. Their mandate would be very narrow and limited to electoral reform issues.

PT: It seems like an idea that could meet resistance from the Legislature. Have you run into a lot of negative feedback?

Canciamilla: Well it's early yet, and we're still waiting for the bill to be referred to its first committee, so we're hoping that it receives a fair hearing and a fair shot. But we also are not naïve enough to deny the possibility that, just as you indicate, there will be a number of people who are uncomfortable with the idea of turning over that kind of process design to an independent group of citizens.

PT: Is it a message that's tough to get across?

Richman: It is tough. First of all, it requires recognition that we have a problem with our representative democracy, and second, it requires people to say, 'Yes, this is a good way to approach these electoral reform issues.' It's an uphill battle.

Canciamilla: Sure. When you have as many interests as we do in California, and as many groups that go along with those interests, you become comfortable with the status quo. Whether the status quo is dysfunctional makes no real difference. It's just the system you know and are comfortable with.

PT: If something like this were put in place, would there be immediate changes to the way things are done in Sacramento?

Canciamilla: Well, that would depend on the recommendations. And again, we're not pre-designing or prejudging what those recommendations might be. Ultimately, the public would have the final decision as to whether to implement any of them or not, because they would have to vote on them.

Richman: Let me go through the process for you. The measure to establish the citizens assembly in the first place is a constitutional amendment. So even to establish the citizens' assembly would require a vote of the people. So if it passed, all the Legislature is doing would be placing it on the ballot for the people to vote on.

If the people voted to implement the citizens' assembly, it would meet over a year's time, two weekends a month, and come up with its recommendations at the end of that year. They would then present those recommendations for electoral reform to the Legislature, which would have the opportunity to provide advice and input. The citizens' assembly could either take that
advice or not, and then whatever the final recommendations are would be placed on the ballot in November of 2008 for the people to vote on.

PT: Can you explain the selection process used to compose the assembly? Could it be vulnerable to tampering?

Canciamilla: You'd have basically the pool of registered voters in California from which you would select a hundred men and a hundred women in each assembly district. They'd be invited to attend an informational meeting where the citizens' assembly would be explained to them, their time commitment, and all of the details of what was expected. Of the ones that said, "Yeah, you know I'm interested in pursuing this," their names would then go back into a random selection, and from that one man and one woman from each assembly district would be selected. So it would be pretty tough to influence the process and to try influence a selection.

PT: How can you ensure that the appointees are qualified to handle such complex issues? Things like redistricting and the effects of term limits can be a lot for even policy analysts to consider.

Canciamilla: Well, how do we make sure the legislature's qualified to do that? Part of it is just simply trusting that we can make good decisions based on good information and common sense, and by putting people together and requiring them to come up with solutions. Again, it's going to have to be done through a majority or whatever voting method they internally decide to use. They'll be staffed initially by a selection or criteria committee that would be made up of two representatives from CSU, two from UC and two from private colleges or universities in the state.

They can then use them as well as whoever is selected to chair the group, who is a non-voting member, to provide additional resources. So they have at their disposal the same information resources the Legislature has. And we think there'd be a long line of experts in a lot of fields waiting to assist and participate in the process.

PT: Have any opponents of the plan identified themselves?

Richman: Not yet. We've really just heard bits and pieces here and there, but the bill hasn't even been heard in the Assembly yet.

PT: Are you aware of some of the opposing arguments?

Richman: The only opposing argument—which doesn't really hold a lot of water—was that we don't need another government or a "shadow government," which is not what it is. It was really someone who wasn't aware of the situation. There have obviously been some comments about average folks making decisions, but I have a lot of trust in the people. And in fact the process in British Columbia was a real validation of that.

PT: Do you think this is something that voters would be excited to see if it made it onto the ballot?

Canciamilla: I think so. We saw in talking to folks that were involved in British Columbia a real increase in the public's attention on issues of public policy. They began to feel more connected, more empowered and that they actually had a voice in their political process. So we certainly hope that we would have the same kind of result here.

PT: If the first assembly was effective, would it be something that could potentially lead to future citizens' assemblies for those other types of narrow issues?

Richman: Well it could, but we are purposely limiting it to one time with a very narrow mandate. We're confident that if we can implement fundamental political reforms—like independent redistricting, for example—then we can get legislators who are going to come to Sacramento more inclined to solve problems rather than just continue the partisan gridlock and dysfunction.

PT: Within the status quo it seems obvious that there are groups with vested interests in certain outcomes. This could change that?

Richman: Well, we think that this is the best way, in fact, to minimize the influence of special interest groups.

PT: Is it going to be difficult to move the plan through the channels during an election year?

Canciamilla: You know, honestly for something like this, I don't think it makes any difference. It won't matter if it's an election year or not; this is the kind of political issue that I think would be problematic no matter when it was introduced.

PT: You mentioned earlier how all other attempts to reform the system have failed to get any traction in the legislature. Doesn't this have the same potential for dismissal?

Richman: Well, it's possible, but I think it goes back to the primary issue of our representative democracy being broken. Either you continue to try and reform, renew and reinvigorate it, or you give up and become apathetic or cynical. You know, most of the people in the state of California don't trust their state government to address their problems. It's an overwhelming distrust. I think the numbers are somewhere in the range of 80% of the people don't trust that the state government can or will address the problems that the state of California faces.

PT: It seems that for this to be successful, people will have to be convinced that it's a genuine effort to reform the system.

Richman: Well, that's in fact what it's focused on. The citizens' assembly goes to work, and in fact it is the process that provides credibility. All of it is open and transparent. When this was done in British Columbia, the public routinely commented that they trusted the process. I think it's a way to reengage the citizenry in what's going on. Right now the citizens of California are disillusioned with their government.


Dr. Keith Richman serves California's 38th Assembly District. He is a member of the Assembly Education Committee and the Assembly Health Committee. He has teamed up with Democratic Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla to form "The Bipartisan Group" of legislators dedicated to replacing partisan politics as usual with constructive cooperation.

Joe Canciamilla represents the citizens of California's 11th Assembly District. He serves as chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Growth and Infrastructure and as a member of the following Committees: Aging and Long-Term Care; Agriculture; Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy; Revenue and Taxation; and Veterans' Affairs.