Citizens Assembly News Digest
January 26, 2006

California's Citizens Assembly Bill, ACA28, Introduced

Late yesterday the citizens assembly bill was dropped but not until the end of today was it printed and posted online. I've attached below links to relevant bill information. I've also placed the same links on my citizens assembly blog.

Here's my brief summary of the highlights of the bill. In many way it tracks the citizens assembly legislation in British Columbia. Most notably, the bill by definition seeks to create a citizens assembly via an act of the legislature. This worked in British Columbia, but a basic assumption here is that it won't work in California, which is why the initiative option is so important. Normally, a bill that isn't going to go anywhere (which is the case with the vast majority of bills) wouldn't be of much interest. But in this case, because it's a dry run for an initiative, the significance of this bill is quite different.

Although the spirit of the bill is very much in tune with the British Colubmia citizens assembly legislation, many of the details are quite different. One of the most important differences is the scope of the citizens assembly agenda. The British Columbia citizens assembly had a very narrowly prescribed agenda. The agenda for this citizens assembly is essentially wide open. Just about any reform having to do with campaigns and elections, including campaign finance, is within the jurisdiction of this citizens assembly. That doesn't mean the citizens assembly has to do more than one simple thing as was done in British Columbia, but nothing in this enabling legislation prevents it from trying to tackle a more ambitious agenda.

On a related front, the British Columbia citizens assembly presented only one recommendation for a ballot item. But this citizens assembly can create as many ballot items as it so chooses.

Giving the citizens assembly such a wide agenda is a very risky maneuver; the citizens could easily be overwhelmed. But because the bill has devised some clever ways to put a first class chair in charge of the process, I think the dangers of giving a lot of options to the citizens assembly is significantly mitigated, although still a source of great uncertainty and risk.

Another major difference is the creation of a selection task force. The mechanism of randomly selecting via a stratified sample two members (a man and woman) from each assembly district closely parallels the British Columbia member selection system. But, in addition, a selection task force is given the power to select ten additional folks to ensure the overall assembly is representative of California's citizenry. The process of selecting this selection task force committee is fairly complicated. The task force would consist of six eminent academic experts, two each selected by the President of the University of California, the Chancellor of the California State University, and the president or a chancellor of a PRIVATE university. The selection task force is a safety valve in case something goes seriously wrong with the stratified random sample and there is an anomaly such as far too few of a particular minority or political party. Overall, it would be great if we could have complete confidence in the stratified random sample. But since that's a pretty risky bet, I think this is a reasonable hedge involving less than 10% of the potential members.

The selection task force also has another novel function: nominating three individuals to be chair of the citizens assembly and then submitting their names to the citizens assembly members for a vote. This is novel in two respects: first, the British Columbia citizens assembly members had no choice in their leadership; and second, this new type of body is given control of the nominating function. Overall, this makes the governance of the citizens assembly far more democratic than the British Columbia citizens assembly. Whether this is a good or bad ideas depends a lot on one's assessment of the judgment of the average citizens in this type of democratic entity. I happen to have a lot of confidence in the judgment of average citizens when they are highly motivated and given good information, which I hope and expect will the case here. So I applaud this nod to greater democracy and pray that my hope is justified.

The bill doesn't set a start date for the citizens assembly's deliberations. But it does set a few deadlines: January 1, 2008 for the assembly's final report, March 31, 2008 to get ballot items to the Secretary of State, and November 4, 2008 for citizens to vote on those ballot items.

The bill is nine pages long, but there is a lot missing, including ethical guidelines for citizens assembly members. The goal was to get a skeleton of a bill out there and then feel free to amend it. Most notably, the bill plants a stake in the ground to start raising support for an initiative. That's where the real excitement should be going forward, and it is going to be a sprint to the finish--difficult but not impossible--to raise millions of dollars for the campaign, get the requisite signatures, and get it all done within less than six weeks. Naysayers will say it cannot be done. But I believe the fun has just begun; and with the passionate backing of these two very experienced political hands--Canciamilla and Richman--it can and will be done.

You may send your comments on the bill directly to Assemblyman Canciamilla by using this page. This is a remarkable feature of California's bill tracking system, and I wish that Congres and my own state of Maryland had something similar. So for all its flaws, California's legislature is doing something right.

Bill Links
A pdf of bill ACA28
General Bill Information Page for bill ACA28