PT talks to Tim Leslie, California Assemblyman for Roseville, Auburn and Assembly District 4, about reapportionment, accountability and the cracks in California's policymaking machine.
PT: You've been through two reapportionments during your tenure in the California Legislature. What can you say about the process?
Leslie: It has to be based on communities of interest. You shouldn't divide a county line unless absolutely necessary. You shouldn't divide a city unless absolutely necessary. When you do these things, you end up with a system in which nobody really knows who their representative is except for the very politically savvy.
PT: So, redistricting sounds like a decent first step, but can you point to anything within the legislative structure itself that should be remedied to address some of the issues that redistricting proposes to fix?
Leslie: A lot of healthy debate that should occur in committees is lost because they're so unbalanced. If Republicans have 43% of the vote statewide, why wouldn't they get 43% of the membership on the committees? Some of the committees are terribly stacked. Right now, the Rules Committee is just a rubber stamp. I remember being so excited to get onto the Rules Committee finally—I had never been on it before. Once I found out what it was, I realized that it was just a big waste of time. The decisions are made by the majority and the minority votes were meaningless. Everything was always totally partisan. Very rarely did we ever actually sit down and negotiate something out.
PT: So, the committee process could use some work it seems. What else?
Leslie: I introduced legislation on this—of course, it was summarily defeated—but these last minute "gut-and-amends" are a terrible practice. When the legislature begins its year, you have to wait 30 days before you can hold a hearing on a bill. Why is that? It's because we want the public to have an opportunity to learn about it, and be aware when the hearing comes so they can come participate in the debate. But when we get to the end of the year, you have legislators taking bills, gutting them entirely and inserting new bills in the place of the old ones. This all happens in the last one or two days of each legislative session.
For example, the Transportation Committee will meet in the Rules Committee room for a hearing. All members of that committee get up, run into the room, receive a bill that no one has ever seen or heard of—of course, it wouldn't be there if they didn't want it out, so the bill goes right to the floor 30 minutes after the committee hearing. Who's supposed to know what's going on?
PT: It sounds like even the legislators would be lost in that situation.
Leslie: That's right. So, they're dependent on the lobbyists that are huddled in the hallway trying to pickup on whatever rumors are being spread. The general public has no idea, the press has no idea, nobody has any idea—not even the legislators. The decision comes down to a handful of string pullers, which is a complete lack of transparency.
PT: Has it always been like this?
Leslie: Well…yes. It's becoming perfected over time, but unfortunately, the answer is yes.
PT: You've mentioned that things have changed in the past 10-15 years. Could you elaborate a bit?
Leslie: I think term limits are a factor. In the past, to be chairman of a committee, you had to have been here for a while to prove yourself. With term limits, you have people chairing committees from their very first day on the job. I get a kick out of it when the new chairman of a committee starts talking about precedent. I think to myself, "The precedent? What would you know about precedent? You've only been here for two months!"
PT: Does this inexperience then cause greater reliance upon lobbyists for information?
Leslie: Sure. If I'm on the health committee and I have no relevant experience, I'd be looking for information wherever I could get it. It's one thing to be on the committee, but it's another to be chairman and not have the appropriate knowledge. I think it goes back to term limits though; they make less responsible, careful, knowledgeable committees.
PT: So, what types of changes in the government would we see if redistricting were approached in a fair, independent, rational way? On that note, how would the dynamic change if term limits were addressed?
Leslie: I think we'd just undo the changes that have been happening over the past few years. It would be back to the way it was in the 1990s. After the 1990 reapportionment, there were a dozen or more competitive districts. I think that representatives would be a little more cautious about representing what their district wants. It might not change very much, but a subtle change can make a difference.
PT: Let's say you have a free hand to make three fundamental changes to the current government structure to make it more effective and transparent. What would you do?
Leslie: First, I'd tackle reapportionment. I'd eliminate the gut-and-amend practice. And I'd probably eliminate "adding on" votes. In the Senate, when you reach the magic number of 21, they announce the vote and that's it. In the Assembly, you can be gone for a few hours, come back in, pull up what you missed on the computer and then vote.
In the Senate you have to sit at your desk and listen; you only get one chance to vote. At the end of the Assembly session, you have a long list of members changing their votes from "yes" to "no" or from "no" to "yes." You can do this as long as you don't affect the outcome of the vote. So, I can help push a bill across, but if there are any extra votes, I can change my vote from "yes" to "no," then go back to my district and say that I didn't vote for that piece of legislation.
PT: Anything else?
Leslie: I would eliminate this two-year session. Too many bills are lurking about waiting to be gut-and-amended. It seems to me like you ought to be able to come in, introduce your bills, have your hearings, and at the end of that legislative year, your bill is either alive or dead. But we've got all kinds of bills that are left over, just waiting around. If you didn't get it through, that's fine; it doesn't mean you'd have to start from scratch, but bills shouldn't be allowed to linger the way they do.
PT: Assemblyman, thank you for your time.
Tim Leslie represents Roseville, Auburn and the 4th Assembly District. Leslie earned a degree in political science at CSU Long Beach, and an MA in public administration from the University of Southern California.