Rancho Santa Fe resident plans to put measure on next year’s ballot to expand California’s Legislature

By Joe Tash

A Rancho Santa Fe man has revived his proposal to expand California’s Legislature to 12,000 members in an effort to reduce the influence of campaign contributions in state politics.

Under the proposed ballot initiative put forward by John Cox, a CPA and attorney who moved to San Diego County from Chicago in 2011, each member of the state Senate would represent a district of no more than 10,000 people, while Assembly districts would include some 5,000 residents.

“We know that California is on a bad trajectory here,” said Cox. “We think the neighborhood legislature is only way to bring the power back to the people and away from campaign funders.”

The idea behind the plan, which was inspired by the 400-member New Hampshire Legislature, is for legislative districts to be small enough that candidates could campaign door-to-door, and would not need loads of campaign cash to compete.

Cox — who controls a multimillion dollar real estate portfolio and provides financial advice to wealthy clients — said he is willing to put up to $500,000 of his own money into the initiative, and will need to raise even more to support the measure on the November 2014 state ballot.

Surveys show that Californians have become jaded about the state’s political process, convinced that campaign contributors control what happens in Sacramento, Cox said. Voters are so apathetic that only about 50 percent of those eligible to vote in San Diego and Orange counties actually register, he said.

“Then when they do register, they don’t come out to vote, they stay home. Surveys tell us the reason is they don’t think their votes count,” he said.

The Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act would amend the California Constitution to change the way the state’s laws are made. Each of the existing 80 Assembly districts and 40 Senate districts would be carved into 100 neighborhood or sub-districts.

The 100 members of each larger legislative district would elect one representative to go to Sacramento as part of a working committee that would function similarly to the existing Legislature. However, before the governor could sign a bill into law, the full 12,000-member Legislature would have to approve it on an up-or-down vote taken over the Internet, Cox said.

Neighborhood legislators would be paid $1,000 per year, while the 120 working committee members would earn $50,000 per year. The state’s 120 legislators currently earn $90,526, which will increase to $95,291 on Dec. 1.

Legislative candidates could still spend money if they wanted to, said Cox, but the playing field would be much more level for those who simply wanted to campaign by meeting face-to-face with people in their neighborhood districts.

“We are saying, this is the greatest transfer of power since 1776,” Cox said.

Cox first brought the initiative forward in 2011, when he filed to put it on the 2012 ballot. But he later decided that year’s ballot was too crowded, and decided to put off the campaign for two years.

He’s now assembled a committee of about 25 people in San Diego County, and hired a paid staff of 15 deployed throughout the state. Supporters have met with hundreds of different groups over the past several months, seeking to educate state voters about the proposal.

Cox filed a request for “title and summary” with the state attorney general’s office on Oct. 24, and hopes to be able to begin collecting signatures in January to put the measure on the ballot. Supporters will need to gather 807,000 signatures, Cox said.

Cox said the measure would not unduly complicate state elections, because small precincts are already set up, and ballots vary from precinct to precinct due to elections for seats on small agencies such as town councils, water districts and school boards.

Tens of millions of dollars would be saved by reducing the salaries of legislators and cutting legislative staffs by 50 percent, he said.

He’s also not worried about asking voters to dramatically increase the number of legislators in California at a time when approval ratings for legislative bodies — at both the state and national levels — are at record lows.

“These aren’t politicians. These are basically people in their communities who are volunteers,” he said.