Policy Today magazine cover showing neighbors talking

PT talks to Roy Ashburn, California State Senator for Bakersfield and Senate District 18, about redistricting and alternative ways to achieve better government.

PT: Redistricting is supposed to restore accountability and fair representation to the legislature, but nobody thinks it's a sliver bullet. What are some other problems within the current structure that must be addressed as well?

Ashburn: The question is the effectiveness and accountability of the legislature, and term limits are the biggest change to occur in modern times on that account. They have had a profound effect by diminishing the effectiveness of the legislature. Legislators can't develop long-term knowledge of issues, and they're pressured to run for other offices or to gain instant name recognition. All of those things have created great instability in the legislature.

PT: So, will redistricting address these issues at all?

Ashburn: No, it won't address the impact of term limits. It might create a few more competitive seats and reduce the instances in which the incumbent has an iron-clad lock on the district. It would bring the electorate back into a process from which they have been largely taken for granted.

PT: Accountability and effectiveness aside, what would you say are the biggest problems with our manner of representation today?

Ashburn: It's overly partisan. It's unbalanced. The legislature's behavior is influenced by the need to either be constantly running for another office or gaining instant fame.

PT: We've heard a lot about unbalanced committees and a lack of deliberation in the legislature. Could you address the issue of "balance" within the current structure?

Ashburn: You lose the discussion of a bill's merits; the outcome has more to do with the bill author's party affiliation. The result is so predictable, there's hardly a need for the process at all.

The Legislature does its work through the committee structure for the purpose of vigorous debate. In the course of debate and scrutiny, ideas are brought out, compromises are forged and legislators attempt to accentuate the good and eliminate the bad in bills before they become laws. You lose this deliberation when you have severe imbalances.

PT: Let's talk about the practice of gut-and-amend.

Ashburn: That's an abuse of power. The public is deprived of the opportunity to know what a bill does, because virtually in the darkness of night—and with lightning speed—bills are completely rewritten, they don't have a policy hearing, the public does not have time to respond or become involved, and yet these are often the most important bills that will come out of the legislature and then go to the governor. They aren't minor issues that tend to be the subject of these gut-and-amends; they are the most major policies.

PT: If the idea is to make good policy and represent the people, why the lack of transparency?

Ashburn: In every instance, the people that engage in it are the majority party, and they do it because generally their constituency group demands it.

PT: Aren't there any rules?

Ashburn: Yes, there are rules, but they are overridden and ignored.

PT: Can't anything be done to enforce them?

Ashburn: I think the gut-and-amend practice should be prohibited altogether.

PT: It's hard enough to get people to see the connection between good government and redistricting, but this seems much more straightforward. Why aren't more people upset about this specifically?

Ashburn: I don't know, because it's such an insider process. The public deals with things that touch the lives of everyday people. For most Californians, this kind of thing doesn't seem relevant. I just don't know if you could get the public's interest. Redistricting suffers from the same problem. It takes a lot of words and a lot of conversation to sell the relevancy of any of these things.

PT: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to smooth, effective policymaking in California today?

Ashburn: The big issues are our current redistricting process, term limits and the gut-and-amend practice. Moreover, everything is far too partisan. Every issue has become a bare-knuckle political boxing match because the parties are so divided.

I think term limits have hurt the ability of legislators to work together. What we're really talking about are relationships of trust and respect. Before, when people achieved seniority and attained leadership posts, they tended to work together on important issues regardless of party line. Today, everything is seen through a prism of political advantage and opportunity.

PT: How do we get back to an overall spirit of collegiality in the Legislature?

Ashburn: I think doing away with term limits would be the first logical step. I don't believe in term limits, period. I think they're an affront to the right of the citizens for self-government. Voters should never be constrained in exercising their choice, and term limits put an artificial barrier between the electorate and their options. Redistricting would help too. I think that if you removed term limits and drew balanced districts, you would see a more thoughtful, stable, more productive legislature.

PT: Some legislators have said that term limits are chiefly responsible for a diminishing pool of knowledge in the Legislature. Would you agree?

Ashburn: Absolutely. First, you almost have to become an instant expert on some complicated matters. More important, some of the excellent staff members have left the legislature. Staff people—because of their personality and temperament—tend to stay in one spot because they prefer security. With term limits, you have such rapid turnover with committee membership and chairmanship that many of the talented staff members have left the volatility of the legislature and have gone over to the lobbying world.

PT: Senator, thank you for your time.

Roy Ashburn represents the residents of the 18th Senate District, which includes Kern, Tulare, Inyo and San Bernardino Counties. Ashburn holds a degree in public administration from California State University, Bakersfield, and also attended the College of the Sequoias in Visalia.