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by Assemblyman Joe Simitian for the San Jose Mercury News

October 10, 2003

Last week’s tumultuous recall was proof positive to anyone who needed it that Californians can and will engage in the political process - and in substantial numbers.

The recall, however, is a big blunt instrument, for use in extraordinary circumstances. The more interesting question is whether or not the public has the will and the ability to engage in the day-to-day work of governance.

As I kick off my third annual “There Oughta Be A Law” contest, I can tell you without a doubt that the answer is “yes.”

Two years ago when I invited my constituents, by way of a contest, to submit their ideas for state legislation, I was cautiously optimistic. My experience in local government taught me that South Bay and Peninsula residents are active and engaged - and care deeply about the quality of life in their community.

But what I quickly discovered was that a lot of folks were truly hungry for a chance to make a difference. And it’s made me that much more detremined to open up the process for public participation.

I never imagined that more than 100 local folks would take the time to craft and submit thoughtful proposals for changes in state law; or that so many of those proposals would be real contenders.

I had hoped to find at least one promising entry to be introduced at the Legislature. In fact, three were so good I chose all of them. And there were a great many more that might well have been chosen were it not for questions of cost, or the need to consider political realities.

What was clear from the start was that this invitation to participate in the process struck a chord with people. People who thought state government was something that took place far away.

People who thought that only the insiders had a role to play. Or that state government was something done for them (or worse yet, done to them), rather than something done by them.

More than 100 local residents overcame their initial skepticism, and submitted their entries. And when the first three winners were announced, it became clear that one person really could make a difference.

I was also struck by the determination of those first three “citizen
legislators,” and the subsequent winners who followed them. Every one of them made the long haul to Sacramento to present testimony in Committee at least once, and sometimes more. Some even went from office to office in the Capitol to lobby for their bills.

As their bills moved through the process, the contest winners discovered that the system worked; in a flawed and imperfect way, but it worked.

I was impressed by how effective these contest winners could be, offering common sense solutions to everyday problems. Amidst the crowd of professional lobbyists and interest group advocates, their stories were compelling.

Compelling enough that all three of the winning proposals that first year were passed by the Legislature and signed into law. And another pair of bills from the most recent “There Oughta Be A Law” contest was signed into law just a few weeks ago.

Even those entries that aren’t selected as winners have an impact on the system. Because I review every entry, I become better informed about the concerns of my constituents. I learn a lot about a wide range of issues, some of which I’m hearing about for the very first time. And I carry that newfound knowledge with me whenever I step onto the floor of the California State Assembly.

So now it’s time to move on. The recall is over. It’s time our attention returns to the day-to-day business of governing our state. If you want to play a part in that process - if you’ve ever said, “there oughta be a law” -

I hope to hear from you.

(Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) represents the 21st Assembly District.)