Joe Mathews: Who needs a capital? Let’s keep California lawmakers close to home

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Joe Mathews - “The pandemic made it possible for officials to see and hear everyday Californians, especially in the working class, as never before.” Photo credit: Andre M, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know California has had 6 state capitals in its history? Actually, seven, if you count both times Sacramento has held the distinction. Starting with Monterey in 1774, the state government has been based in San Jose, Vallejo, Benicia (yes, Benicia!), Sacramento and San Francisco...and then Sacramento for good, starting in 1869. 

A central seat of state government might have made sense in the 19th and even the 20th centuries, but in this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California”, commentator Joe Mathews says the coronavirus pandemic has shown that’s no longer the case. He’s advocating that lawmakers stay close to their constituents and govern remotely.  

Read Mathews’ column below:

Why bother maintaining a state capital?

Californians certainly shouldn’t. The pandemic demonstrated what things are essential in California, and what things we can live without. Among our superfluous assets: the designation of Sacramento as our capital city.

In the biggest emergency of our lives, our elected officials managed to respond and govern with the Capitol, the seat of government, closed. Public employees in Sacramento-based agencies kept the government running while working remotely or from home. 

Having the capital closed didn’t diminish state ambitions. To the contrary, there was a historic expansion in state government and its goals, with new programs in health and homelessness launched on the fly, and the budget growing at record speed.

And rather than limiting public access to state government, the absence of a capital brought regular people closer to our government than ever before.

Before COVID, you needed resources—either in time to drive or fly to Sacramento or in money to hire a lobbyist—to get yourself heard by the state government. The pandemic made it possible for officials to see and hear everyday Californians, especially in the working class, as never before; many of them including the governor ended up traveling around the state and governing from the road. And via Zoom, Southern Californians like me could watch state government hearings from their kitchens.

Now, with the pandemic retreating, Californians should make sure that power is never restored to the capital.

That won’t be easy. The powers-that-be in Sacramento, desperate to protect their money and prerogatives, are already demanding a return to the bizarrely centralized California governance that they call “normal.”

The Sacramento Bee, in an awful editorial, recently demanded that state workers return to the city’s downtown. Their self-serving reason: protecting local property tax, hotel tax, and parking revenues that the city of Sacramento needs to pay off ill-conceived public investments in downtown developments, including an arena for its miserable pro basketball franchise.

The editorial omitted the larger context: Sacramento’s rapid downtown growth is an artificially created bubble, built on the dysfunctional and overly centralized Prop 13 tax system. That system requires the rest of California to send its local revenues to Sacramento and then hire expensive lobbyists to get some of those dollars back home.

But if California ended Sacramento’s status as its capital, the biggest winner might be Sacramento itself. The no-longer-capital city would have the rare opportunity for a fresh start, including a more balanced economy. The loss of government jobs might slow down rapidly escalating housing prices there.

And the Capitol and state buildings could be repurposed for housing or a new Cal Poly or UC campus that would allow those systems to serve more California students—and create new economic possibilities for Sacramento.

Giving up on the idea of the capital could benefit the rest of California, too—and not just by saving billions spent on new and unnecessary state buildings, like the new California Natural Resources Agency headquarters. While politicians will argue that they get more done by meeting together in Sacramento, the truth is that elected leaders are far more responsive when they are seeing their constituents more than their colleagues.

Offering Sacramento-based state workers incentives to relocate to poorer neighborhoods around California would also put their stable incomes in the service of regional equity. And a state workforce extending into every corner of California should be more responsive to local concerns.

Of course, total decentralization is not possible. State legislators may well insist on holding some sessions and meetings all together. If they do, the location should rotate among different places, as my friend, the former deputy state treasurer and journalist Mark Paul, has suggested. To raise revenue, the state government could even put the right to host the legislature up for bids from different cities and counties—like with the Super Bowl or the Olympics.

California is too great and large of a place to have a single center or seat of power. The state government should be present, and accessible, wherever you can find one of California’s greatest assets—its nearly 40 million people.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Darrell Satzman