A disreputable chapter of California legislative history -- when consideration of single-payer health insurance was banned -- has ended with the filing of a single-payer universal healthcare bill. The question now is can the legislature be prevented from similarly embarrassing itself in the future by again evading its responsibilities to conduct the people's business on matters of substantial importance. Perhaps the nation's largest state might consider an idea from one of the oldest states -- the Massachusetts "right of free petition."
California State Capitol Building | Sacramento, California C. | Flickr1024 Ã-- 683 - 331k - jpg
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Having twice passed single-payer legislation, the Democratic-controlled California legislature four years ago disappeared the bill. There is no record of the legislative leadership telling members they couldn't file the bill, it's just that none, in either branch, did -- even though a bill had been filed in each of the seven previous two-year sessions. The salient fact here is that the legislature had actually put the bill on the governor's desk when the governor was Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now it's Democrat Jerry Brown and as one observer bluntly put it, "A Democratic legislature will pass single payer when there's a Republican Governor but not when there's a Democratic Governor -- unless he wants it." The legislative leadership's previous support for single payer had been for show only.
Unless California's current legislative leaders (who change rapidly due to term limits) have a better grasp on the question than the state's chief executive -- whose most recent take on state-level Medicare-for-all ideas was: "I don't even get it. How do you do that?" -- California could be in for more flim-flam from the legislature. In Massachusetts, the legislature could not even entertain foisting off such a travesty upon the populace because that state's 1780 constitution guarantees its people the "right ... to ... give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer." This language is universally understood to grant Massachusetts citizens "the right of free petition," that is, the right to file any bill they deem worthy. This situation is unique among the fifty states -- but maybe it shouldn't be.
This right does not work miracles. It's just a part of a Massachusetts legislative culture, broader and more open than in many other states with as many as 8,000 bills considered in a legislative session. If an individual wants to file a piece of legislation widely considered beyond the pale, that bill is filed "by request," indicating that the Senator or Representative sponsoring it does not actually support it, which renders its chances of passage nil. Nor can the right of free petition guarantee that a meritorious bill won't be voted down, or shunted off to a study. It does, however, at least guarantee that important issues can get a hearing in the state capitol.
California ironically enjoys a national reputation for broad citizen access to the law-making process, due to its well-utilized initiative and referendum mechanisms, adopted in 1911 to counter corporate dominance of the legislature. But not only has the initiative process become an extremely expensive business, but its simple up-or-down vote precludes the possibility of refinement and improvement in the hearing and amendment process.
Doubtless California, a state of 39 million, will never adopt whole-cloth a right promulgated by a state whose populace numbered little more than a quarter million at the time -- in 2017, any consideration of creating a new citizen right of free petition would likely involve a threshold number of supporters higher than one. But California's recent suppression of normal democratic legislative procedure does suggest that the state's voters would be well served by considering the concept in some form. Likewise, the growing national alienation from government suggests that more than one state might benefit from considering it.