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What Would a Real Citizen Legislature Look Like?

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Opinion: A Twist on Citizen Lawmakers

Victoria Pickering, Flickr

California Republicans are often caricatured as having few ideas beyond the willingness to say "no."

Joe Rodota puts the lie to this. He's a Republican policy thinker and consultant who works with people across party lines and is always on the hunt for new ideas.

Rodota recently offered a mostly upbeat assessment of the state's "reform industry." In the process, he made a smart case for an idea sometimes known as as the "citizen legislature."

This doesn't mean putting regular folks in the regular legislature. What it does mean, as Rodota explains at Fox & Hounds Daily.

The idea would be that, once every two years, a group of several hundred average citizens would consider and place on the ballot one measure – and one measure only – on the subject of its choosing.  It might be a simple education reform, or a campaign finance overhaul – whatever the participants decided – placed on the November ballot as a “citizen’s initiative”.

There’s also value in creating a new process whereby a previous initiative can be outright repealed, once its flaws have become painfully obvious to all.

Having a way to subtract rules from California's mess of a system has a ton of value.

The legislature can ask voters to repeal an initiative or chagne the constitution, but that doesn't often work -- in part because it's the legislature, which no one trusts, proposing the change.

Rodota suggests some alternatives for this notion of addition-by-subtraction.

An alternative would be to take an existing organization, such as the Little Hoover Commission (appointed by the Governor and legislative leaders) and give it the power to review and place on the ballot one or two measures, each election cycle, which they believe should be repealed. One such candidate for a “do-over” might be Proposition 98, which has clearly demonstrated, over its more than 20-year history, a failure to provide transparent and predictable funding for California schools.

Thoughtful stuff.

I do wish that Rodota conceived of this repeal power more broadly -- so many of the whips and chains in California's system are connected to each other that it'd be nice if you could repeal many related things together.

But this idea is a start -- on the path of giving California a simpler governing structure. 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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