Policy Today magazine cover
November 2, 2005

PT talks to California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez about Proposition 77, California's legislative process and his own ideas on how to restore collegiality and responsiveness to the legislature.

PT: Californians will be heading to the polls again in just a few days. When they reach Prop. 77 on their ballots, what should they be thinking about?

Núñez: Voters should be thinking about equal, fair representation when they cast their votes against Prop. 77. I am generally supportive of reviewing the redistricting process for 2010, but there are four particularly egregious issues involved with Prop. 77. First, it uses census data that is painfully out of date to draw districts. Second, it places the responsibility for drawing districts for 36 million people in the hands of three retired judges. Third, it removes requirements that communities of common interest be taken into account when lines are drawn. Finally, it puts a redistricting plan before voters after it has been put into use.

PT: Legislators on both sides of the isle have come out against the way districts are currently drawn. Why is Prop. 77 the wrong answer?

Núñez: Prop. 77 uses census data that is beyond stale; it would be six years off the mark at the very least. In addition, the proposition strips out vital language that protects representation for racial, ethnic and socio-economic minority communities.

PT: What alternatives have legislators opposed to Prop. 77 presented to address these issues?

Núñez: Earlier this year, the State Senate made an early introduction of a concept to refine the redistricting process. The general guidelines included these: using sound, reliable 2010 census data; creating a seven person commission that is representative of the people of California to draw the maps; and an allowance for a simple up or down vote by the legislature on the re-drawn maps.

PT: If the proposition fails, why will it fail? If it succeeds, why will it succeed? On each of these accounts, what does the result tell us about where to go next?

Núñez: It is clear that a desire exists to have equal and fair districts drawn to represent the true will of the people. In order for that desire to be fulfilled, it is necessary to take the time to do this right. That means we must use timely census data, take into account the interests of all voters and have an impartial group of individuals who represent all groups draw the lines.

PT: If not redistricting as a first step toward more effective government, then what? What reforms do you believe are most important, and why aren't we seeing those on the ballot as alternatives to Prop. 77?

Núñez: Certainly a constant review of how the process of government works is of enormous benefit to the people of California. Sound redistricting in 2010 is a good place to start, as is a comprehensive review of the stingy term limits that are in place right now. I get to spend six years in the State Assembly—that's three terms of two years. In a place like the legislature,  elected members who are experts in the highly complex business of government—and who are deeply passionate about governing—are officials worth keeping here in Sacramento. I think revisiting term limits is vital to maintaining a healthy, well-running legislature.

PT: Ohio is undergoing a similar redistricting movement with the party lines reversed. What does this say about the system itself and today's political culture?

Núñez: It is part of our culture to always look toward new and better ways of doing things.
It does not matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, good government that is well run by the best people who are fair and honest is important.

PT: Assemblyman Nation has said that the system is "broken" in California. As speaker you must see this especially well. What could you point to as the main areas of structural weakness in our current system—electorally, legislatively or otherwise?

Núñez: We can certainly do a few things to address the issues hampering effective governing. The need for a two-thirds supermajority vote to increase revenues to the state is certainly something that has cost us dearly. This provision allows a small minority of legislators to block  tough choices that we need to make to get our state back on track. I believe it should be eliminated. Also, so many of the issues we're faced with currently center around the limited time legislators are allowed to spend in office and what is necessary to continue working in public service. Revisiting the term limits issue would help build the expertise that is needed to keep our state headed in a healthy, productive direction.

PT: Although you began your time in the Assembly in 2002, do you get a sense that there been a change over the past 10 years in the way policy is created? Many say that it has become intensely politicized. To what would you attribute this change, and how do we get back to a spirit of collegiality and bipartisanship in the Legislature?

Núñez: This takes us back to the issue of term limits. Again, I would love to see the issue of term limits addressed. If indeed that does not happen, I think our system will find a way to operate and operate successfully. There has been a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience drained out of the legislature in the past ten years because of term limits. In the next ten years, we will need to find a way to maintain a healthy system and keep things on track.

PT: Mr. Speaker, thank you for your time.

Fabian Núñez was elected to the California State Assembly in 2002 and sworn in as the state's 66th speaker on February 9, 2004. He represents downtown Los Angeles and the other communities of the 46th Assembly District. He earned bachelor's degrees in political science and education from Pitzer College in Claremont.