California state Sen. Jim Costa takes over today as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Costa, a Democrat, succeeds Indiana House Republican Leader Paul Mannweiler in the post.
A farmer from Fresno in California's San Joaquin Valley, Costa has served in the California Legislature 21 years, 16 in the Assembly and five in the Senate. He co-authored the state's three-strike crime law and was instrumental in moving California's presidential primary forward to the first Tuesday in March. Costa spoke with Stateline.org Staff Writer Maureen Cosgrove at NCSL's annual meeting in Chicago this week about his new role at NCSL and other matters.
Stateline.org: First of all, congratulations on becoming NCSL's new president.
Costa: Thank you. Thank you.
Stateline.org: My first question is, this is a good opportunity to spotlight issues that are important to you. Are there any in particular that you plan to push forward in your presidency?
Costa: There are a number of efforts that we're pursuing. One is electronic commerce. We think it's really critical that we have an opportunity to ensure that states aren't preempted on their use of the sales tax or use tax. Forty-six states in the nation utilize the sales tax or use tax within the revenues that they achieve each year to pay for governmental services. For cities and counties it's very significant as well. What we're suggesting is to work within the current moratorium, and the burden should be on the states to come up with a simple and fair system that can be used. We're not at all suggesting that we tax access to the Internet. We're simply talking about protecting the existing ability for states to be able to generate those revenues as they have in the past. We're also concerned as we move more and more from a bricks and mortar economy to clicks and mortar that we have fairness in terms of commerce for the business people that contribute to our communities, [the ones that] sponsor the Little League team and help the Girl Scouts, etc. So those things are all very important to us as we move into our state and federal issues and trying to protect federalism, which is what we define as the states' ability to determine what is the best way to solve problems in their respective states. That's under the federalism notion that one size does not fit all. A solution for New Hampshire is different for Illinois as it's different for Texas as it's different for California. And devolution as it has manifested itself over the last 20 years , is really, we think, developed, coupled with Supreme Court decisions, what the appropriate role and distinctions ought to be between state and federal government. So we want to obviously protect that. Are there any new programs that you plan to initiate or plan on changing in your presidency at NCSL?
Costa: We have 18 states in the nation that are dealing with term limits. That's a third of our members, over a third. It's very important that we make this organization their organization, because NCSL is our organization, user friendly is the term I like to use. When a person is elected to the legislature, their first goals are to represent their district, to focus on issues that they care passionately about or have some expertise in. Their third goal is usually to get re-elected. Their fourth goal tends to be, if they're successful, is to try to move up in the leadership in their respective house. When you look at that from a legislator's perspective, if you're in a term-limited state where you can only serve six years, by the time you serve your constituency, focus on issues that you're passionate about that you have expertise in, you've secured your second election and you're trying to move into leadership, it's very hard to think, "shall I get involved in our national organization?" Your other priorities obviously come first. So we're really seeking ways in which we can provide outreach to those 18 states that are dealing with term-limits to ensure that they feel that they can continue to participate and benefit from their organization, which is NCSL.
Stateline.org: I know you're under term limits in California. When exactly does that affect you?
Costa: I have two years and five months. But I've been in for 21 years. I served before term limits came to California, 16 years in the Assembly and then I was elected in 1994 in the state Senate.
Stateline.org: On that same point, there was an article recently in the Washington Post that seemed to indicate that some of the voter anger that was propelling term-limit movements in the past has been abated by economic prosperity. Do you see a trend in that? Do you see that helping those 18 states?
Costa: Oh, I definitely do. I think the approval ratings of state legislatures around the country have improved in recent years in part because of the good economic times and in part because I think people are understanding that legislatures are very sensitive to the voters' issues, to their concerns. And you see legislatures reflecting that. I think in California if we could put a measure on the ballot to modify term limits, not to eliminate them, but we have among the most extreme measures. Ours is six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. And once you served you're banned for life. I would argue in some ways we treat our criminals better. I mean, man, you've been in the legislature, you can't go any more. You're banned. But I believe if we were to put a measure on the ballot that would modify it to provide 12 years in the Assembly and 12 years in the Senate, for example, and if you sat out a term you could come back and run again, I think there's a good chance that the voters would approve that in California at this time. Of course, there are a number of forces out there that have a political agenda that don't want to see it on the ballot because they're fearful that the voters might in fact change.
Stateline.org: I understand that your family has traditionally been in farming and I'm guessing that sprawl is a pretty important issue to you.
Costa: Well, I'm third generation family farmer. We still farm in the Central Valley. And so you're now at a subject that's near and dear to my heart. I've also chaired the Senate Agriculture and Water Committee for the last five and a half years. California is known for a lot of things, our high-tech industry, our movie industry, our aerospace industry, but we've been the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation for 50 years, and oftentimes people forget that.
The problem we have in California is growth, very simply. We have now almost 34 million living in California. When I first took office we had about 20 million people. I've only been in for 21 years. It's not that long and I'm not that old. The fact of life is, even under the most conservative demographic experts, that we'll grow in the next 30 years, by an estimated population of another 15 to 17 million more people. That means by the year 2030, we'll probably have about 50 million people living in California. That requires smart growth, wise land use planning, revitalization of our inner cities and good planning.
Stateline.org: The presidential primary--I know you had a role in moving up California's and that's spurred some debate. California is such a large state and they carry so much weight anyway, and by the time California's primary had happened, the race was pretty much over. Do feel like that contributes to voter apathy?
Costa: Well now you're talking about another subject that I feel passionately about. For 18 years, I was involved in trying to move California's presidential primary and finally succeeded two years ago. Again working with Secretary of State Bill Jones, we've had a long history of working together. California, for the last four decades, up until this year, has basically been the automatic teller machine for presidential politics. Candidates come to California with their ATM cards, and they raise a lot of money, and then they go back and spend it in places like New Hampshire and the Northeast and the Midwest. And California voters never get a chance to have a say in the election process.
Now the method to my madness was not to try to put California in a situation where the other states in the Union don't count, because I'm really a student of American history and American politics, and I think every region of the country is important. What I think is we ought to have a more rational process of selecting the two nominees for both major political parties.
Now my belief of what would be a solution, there are other ideas out there as well, is to create a system of regional rotating primaries that would alternate every four years. So that you'd have maybe the Northeast hold their primaries on the same day, have the South three or four weeks later hold their primaries on the same day, have the Midwest two weeks later hold their primaries on the same day, the Rocky Mountain states, and then the West. And then candidates could concentrate their resources, i.e. their people and their money, in a particular region, just campaign in that region, try to pick out what states and do whatever spin they want to do. That would I think be a more rational system.
I would also suggest that we have weekend elections, people vote on Saturdays and Sundays, if you want to encourage voter turnout. A couple states are now beginning to experiment with that effort.
Stateline.org: Thank you so much. Good luck to you.
Costa: Thank you.