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California activist pushes to expand government -- to 12,000 lawmakers

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FILE: 2003: The California state capital building in Sacramento, Calif.REUTERS

A California resident and one-time Republican presidential candidate has a radical plan to overhaul government in his state -- a ballot initiative that would increase the size of the state’s legislature to roughly 12,000 members.

John Cox, a San Diego County resident, says his plan is to divvy up the state’s 120 legislative districts into roughly 12,000 more community-based districts. The plan, he claims, would make California government more in tune with voters and less vulnerable to special interests.

Cox reportedly has cleared the first hurdle, getting state permission this month to collect signatures to get the initiative on the November 2014 ballot. But he still faces several other challenges in his bid to increase the size of the legislature for the first time since the late-1800s.

He will need to collect 807,615 valid signatures by May 19. And the initiative, if passed, could have to go before the state Supreme Court to become law, according to Bob Stern, who ran California’s non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies. 

Though the idea seems outlandish, California activists have used the state's robust ballot question culture to enact a range of measures over the years. And Cox argues that it would actually save the state money, by paying lawmakers far less. 

Stern, though, did not give this one good odds. 

“It’s an interesting idea, but not realistic,” he told FoxNews.com. “The public won’t support it.”

Stern points out that a similar effort to expand the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors failed 20 years ago. He noted California, with 38 million people, does have the biggest legislative districts in the country.  

State senators now represent an average 950,000 residents -- roughly the same as a U.S. senator in Montana and more than the average U.S. House member.

Cox's Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act would reduce state Senate districts to an average 10,000 residents and state Assembly districts from about 465,000 to 5,000 residents.

"If this passes, this would be the greatest transfer of power since 1776, because what it means is that special-interest money won't control the state legislature," Cox told The Wall Street Journal last week. "It will be real people in the neighborhoods."

He also makes clear his plan won’t send an overflow of lawmakers to Sacramento for the annual months-long legislative session. It instead calls for them to form working committees that elect a member to represent them at the state capital, though the roughly 12,000 would each cast a final vote, most likely online.

Cox says his plan would save the state money because each legislator would make $1,000 a year plus some expenses, compared with the roughly $95,000 they now make annually. And the salary cuts, combined with less staffing and operational costs in Sacramento, would save California $130 million a year, according to a preliminary state analysis obtained by The Journal.

Cox reportedly says he already spent $500,000 on the initiative and is willing to spend more to get the message out to voters.