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In the beginning, there was state government.
Before there was a federal government, a collection of states organized under the Articles of Confederation in 1781. But the 13 separate entities with different interests soon realized they needed an overarching body to enforce laws, regulate commerce and wage war. So the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, then ratified by the states and took effect in 1789.
Yet, despite states being the foundation upon which this country’s government is organized, their role in our daily lives is not always apparent. And in some respects — and especially for a place as populous as California — state and local governments play a more prominent role in decisions that affect daily life than the federal government, according to research from nonpartisan the Brookings Institution.
At the center of California’s state government is the Legislature. CalMatters has an interactive tool to find out who your legislators are and their political leanings, plus which lawmakers work on the issues you care about.
But how much do you really know about how California’s state government works?
CalMatters answers many of the most important questions in this explainer. (Have a question that’s not covered below? Submit it here.)
State governments are modeled after the federal government. According to the U.S. Constitution, they must uphold a “republican form” of government. Typically, that means having three branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial.
Because of our federal system, the state sets its own rules, too. The state Legislature passes laws specific to California — subject to vetoes by the governor — while state officers and agencies carry out those laws and regulations to implement them.
The state oversees:
- Building and maintaining roads
- Making sure schools are operating
- Enforcing public health policies
- Setting rules for businesses
- Protecting the environment
But much of the budgeting and day-to-day operations fall to counties and cities.
The exception to the separation of powers: In times of emergency — as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 98,000 Californians — the governor can use executive powers to overrule some of that local authority, such as reopening businesses and requiring masks. (The COVID state of emergency isn’t scheduled to officially end until Feb. 28, nearly three years after it started.)
How does the state pay for building freeways, operating schools and other key functions? Through a mix of money: federal funds, state revenue from taxes and fees, and income from investments made by the state treasurer’s office.
It’s worth noting that a big chunk of total federal funding nationwide comes from California. A 2021 analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center found that collectively, California taxpayers — both individuals and businesses — contribute nearly $1 in every $6 in total net federal tax revenues.
The Legislature and the governor decide on the budget each year. But occasionally, you get to decide spending priorities. Proposition 98, for example, was approved by voters in 1988 and guarantees a certain level of spending for K-12 education.
While state government has enjoyed record surpluses and billions in federal COVID relief the last few years, the Legislature and governor must deal with a projected $31.5 billion budget deficit this year. Why the budget whiplash? The mix and volatility of state revenue sources is a key reason.
While all states have a similar basic setup, how each state government operates varies, as does each state legislature.
The Texas legislature, for example, meets only every other year, and for a maximum of 140 days, compared to the annual, nearly 210-day sessions in California.
In other states — Idaho, New Mexico and Utah, among them — legislators only serve part-time. While rank-and-file California legislators get paid about $120,000 a year, much more than in nearly every other state, some have outside business income.
Because of California's large population and relatively small Legislature, each lawmaker represents more people than in any other state, according to Ballotpedia. Each state senator represents nearly 976,000 people, while each Assembly member represents about 488,000.
North Dakota's senators represent the fewest people, about 16,600 each, while New Hampshire’s representatives represent the fewest, 3,444 residents. For comparison, each U.S. House member represents about 766,000 people.
California ranks 12th in spending per person at $9,040. Alaska and Hawaii spend the most, about $16,300 and $12,500, respectively.
Each level of government has its own elected representatives:
Find your legislators here:
State constitutional officers serve four-year terms and were all elected in 2022. State senators also serve four-year terms, with half elected in 2022, while Assembly members serve two-year terms, and all were elected in 2022.
The 2023 Legislature is made up of 94 Democrats and 26 Republicans. That reflects the state’s partisan split: About 47% of voters registered for the 2022 elections were Democrats, while Republicans made up only 24%. Those numbers mean that Democrats typically ease to victory in statewide races and in many legislative districts. (California is one of 14 states with a double-digit Democratic lean, compared to how the entire country votes, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.).
What does that mean for the state’s policymaking?
While Democrats have a two-thirds “supermajority” in both chambers — allowing them to pass tax and other bills without any Republican votes — that doesn’t mean every bill proposed by a Democrat passes. There are different stripes of Democrats — notably, more business-friendly moderates, who disagree with progressives.
The new state Legislature is the most diverse ever, but by some measures, it still isn’t fully representative of California. See details in our interactive tool.
Typically, it’s a mix of what constituents want and what a lawmaker thinks is beneficial. The latter can be shaped by legislators’ previous work experience, according to Matt Lesenyie, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach. It impacts their preferred committee assignments, which shapes which issues they tackle. Lawmakers also take an oath to not just advocate for their district, but for California as a whole, though often that statewide agenda is shaped by the political parties.
But other groups have an influence, too — what are often called “special interests.” They can be industries, such as oil and gas, as well as labor unions or advocacy groups for the environment and other causes. And often, these interest groups are major campaign donors to many legislative candidates.
"Special interests" can even be other government officials: The associations representing California’s 58 counties and 482 cities and towns, plus individual local governments, rank as the biggest spenders in lobbying state government — a total of nearly $700 million since 2002.
And the governor — Gavin Newsom was sworn into this second four-year term on Jan. 6 — often sets the agenda, either formally through his proposed budget or bills he supports, or more informally through public events and using the bully pulpit. To jump-start his new term, he went on a statewide tour to promote his policy priorities on homelessness, prisons and healthcare — a four-day series of events that cost taxpayers at least five times more than the traditional State of the State speech.
For this new Legislature, Newsom called a concurrent special session to debate his plan for a "penalty" on the excess profits of oil refiners. He signed a version of that proposal in March, and the session ended.
Specific issues and bills are usually discussed multiple times in several committees before possible votes on the floor of the Assembly or Senate (for example, there are education and housing committees in both chambers). By law, the hearings are supposed to be accessible to the public.
Then, there are parts of the lawmaking process that are less than fully transparent. For instance: the dreaded and mysterious “suspense file,” where bills are killed by the appropriations committees — often with very little, if any, explanation.
Also, keep an eye out for budget “trailer bills,” which sometimes hide major policy changes without the usual full vetting by other committees, even with recent rules that require the bills to be in print for 72 hours before a vote.
And then there’s the “gut-and-amend” strategy, in which a bill that has already passed one house is gutted and then amended with a completely different proposal or idea — often in the last days of the session and sometimes sought by a specific interest.
Finally, if a bill is eventually passed by both the Assembly and Senate and sent to the governor's desk, it's still subject to a veto. Of the nearly 1,200 bills approved in 2022, Gov. Newsom vetoed nearly 170.
There are different ways that state lawmakers divide and conquer the mountain of bills and issues that come before them each session.
Besides the standing policy committees and their subcommittees, there are sometimes also select committees, joint committees, task forces and working groups where legislators chew over issues. Typically, they convene hearings where they bring in stakeholders to discuss a problem and possible solutions.
Caucuses, organized around issues or identities, are alliances that help lawmakers garner support for their bills and most employ staff to assist legislators. But the partisan caucuses in the Assembly and Senate hold the most influence.
- Know the lawmakers who represent you and contact them. Each senator and every Assemblymember has a website that includes information on how to call, send emails or request a meeting. You can also sign up for their email lists and follow them on social media so you can be alerted to initiatives you care about, or events happening near you.
- Get a general idea of the legislative process. If you have a concern or idea, how does it turn into state law? The Assembly has an overview here.
- Figure out which Assembly and Senate committees focus on the issue or issues you’re concerned about, pay attention to who the committee chairpersons are, tune into committee hearings and give public comment. Here’s where you can see which hearings are happening when and what’s on the agenda: In the Assembly, and in the Senate.
- The Legislature has its own lingo. Here are some of the terms and phrases you may not understand.
If it all sounds like more than you have time or energy for, start with just getting informed. Sign up for CalMatters’ daily WhatMatters newsletter, where we try to make sense of what’s happening.