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Gov. Relents on Sped-Up Remapping

Times Staff Writers

Retreating from another proposal for swift change in California government, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday dropped his demand that the state’s legislative and congressional districts be redrawn by next year.

Lawmakers and political analysts interpreted the move as a sign that the governor would back away from a planned special election this fall on a wide-ranging government overhaul. Schwarzenegger denied this.

For months, he has insisted that California needs to immediately change its method of electing politicians, calling for independent judges -- rather than legislators -- to draw district boundaries. In February, he and his aides said there would be no compromise on the issue.

But at a choreographed “town hall” meeting Wednesday in a Fontana steel mill, where the governor talked with a friendly audience of about 300 steelworkers, business leaders and politicians, he was much less urgent. He said he hoped that negotiations with Democratic lawmakers would “work all this out, all the dates, should it be 2006, should it be 2008, should it be 2010.”

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“The key thing is not what is the year that we change the system,” Schwarzenegger said, “but that it will be changed.”

Schwarzenegger’s plan to change redistricting is contained in a ballot initiative being circulated on California streets and in a bill before the Legislature. Backers of the measure said that next week they expected to turn in the required 600,000 signatures needed to place the issue before voters.

At a February news conference in Washington, the governor was asked if he might be willing to compromise with members of Congress, who opposed mid-decade redistricting. He cast his plan as “nonnegotiable.”

“This package is the way it is,” he said at the time. “The way we introduced it, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

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Schwarzenegger’s entire agenda has been driven by his insistence that the changes he favors are essential and must occur immediately -- like a broken leg that can’t wait for a scheduled appointment, he has said repeatedly.

The governor has now backed off or compromised on each of the major proposals he introduced nearly four months ago in a confrontational State of the State address before the Democratic-controlled Legislature. He dubbed 2005 the “Year for Reform” and has traveled the state to hawk his plans in staged events like the Fontana meeting.

Of all his proposals, the restricting plan was the least controversial among voters but the most upsetting to Sacramento and Washington politicians. By postponing it, Schwarzenegger is relinquishing hopes of working with a reconstituted Legislature in a possible second term.

Legislative leaders and congressional Republicans have said they would accept independent judges drawing their districts, as long as it occurred after the 2010 census.

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Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) welcomed the governor’s move Wednesday. It has removed a “major sticking point,” he said. The governor’s new position “lends itself to real negotiations” on such issues as the makeup of the independent panel that would draw the districts.

“I appreciate that the governor sees the wisdom in working with the Legislature on a redistricting timeframe that works for California,” Nunez added. “The fact that they had drawn the line in the sand on that was ludicrous. It made it seem like it was nothing more than a power play.”

Schwarzenegger had said that if lawmakers balked at his proposals this year, he would call a special election and take the ideas directly to voters in the form of ballot initiatives. He reiterated that Wednesday and ridiculed the Legislature once again for what he characterized as scant interest in his proposals.

But Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said Schwarzenegger’s willingness to compromise “certainly removes the need for a special election. A 2006 redistricting was the administration’s only argument to spend money we don’t have on an issue of low voter interest.”

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Barbara O’Connor, a professor of politics and media at Cal State Sacramento, said Schwarzenegger was “realizing that his overly ambitious agenda, without enough specifics to really do it justice, was a mistake. He is trying to cut deals with the leadership that will produce a process that people can embrace and do during the normal course of events.”

Every decade, after the federal census, the California Legislature redraws districts based on new population numbers. Only 13 states prohibit lawmakers from drawing their own districts; most of those use bipartisan panels.

Schwarzenegger has said the California system is rigged by “a political elite building a fortress to keep themselves in and to keep the people out.” He has noted that in November, not one of 153 congressional and legislative seats on the state ballot switched between the Republican and Democratic parties.

On Wednesday, the governor singled out the 23rd Congressional District, dubbing it -- displayed on a huge video screen -- the “ribbon of shame” district because it stretches 200 miles up the coast from Oxnard to Monterey County, and “in some areas the district is only a few hundred yards wide.”

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He said lawmakers were picking their voters, not the other way around.

The governors’ aides insisted Wednesday that he was not softening his position. Spokeswoman Margita Thompson said: “It’s nothing different than we said before. The governor has said all along that he wants to work with the Legislature. This isn’t anything different.

“He wants it as soon as possible and whatever time it takes to be feasible,” she said.

The Assembly Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who is sponsoring legislation to redraw districts for the next election, said a delay would make it more difficult for Schwarzenegger to negotiate with the Legislature, because incumbents would remain insulated from public pressure.

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“If you agree that redistricting is dysfunctional, why would you wait?” McCarthy asked. “If your arm is broken, you don’t wait for the next doctor’s appointment to see him. You go now.”

Experts on the complex mechanics of redistricting had said that it would be nearly impossible to create districts with equal numbers of people -- as required by the Constitution -- in mid-decade, because outdated census information would be used.

The state’s population has mushroomed since the last census, in 2000, but no one has tracked exactly where new and relocated residents are living. The experts said legal challenges would have been likely, tying the effort up in court for months.

“I really think it would have just been a humongous waste of money,” said Karin Mac Donald, who oversees the state redistricting database at the University of California’s Institute of Governmental Studies in Berkeley. “How can you improve districts if you don’t have accurate data?”

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Ted Costa, an anti-tax activist who wrote the redistricting initiative, acknowledged that redrawing the district lines in 2006 would be nearly impossible.

“I don’t care if it takes effect in ’06 or ’08, whatever,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get this done for 20 years. What ... is two more years?”

In recent weeks, the governor has dropped his initiative to reform the vast public pension system, saying he wants to revise and reintroduce the plan next year. He has also changed course on a proposal -- fiercely opposed by the California Teachers Assn. -- to pay teachers based on merit rather than seniority.

Instead, his administration has been negotiating with state Sens. Jack Scott (D-Altadena) and Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) to make new teachers wait several years before winning tenure, and to create “incentive pay” for educators who work in particularly difficult environments, such as schools in impoverished areas.

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Schwarzenegger scrapped a proposal to put automatic curbs on state spending, opting instead for a plan that would grant the governor more power to trim the budget at will. He withdrew his plan to abolish 88 “inefficient and wasteful” boards and commissions. And under pressure from victims rights groups, he dropped a bid to alter the prison parole system.

Since his speech in January, the governor has watched his political fortunes fall amid a series of missteps and miscalculations. Democrats and public employee unions have vociferously opposed his proposals and spent millions of dollars on TV ads attacking him as unscrupulous.

On Wednesday, he denied compromising on any of his plans.

Appearing on Fox News, he was asked by host Sean Hannity: “Have you changed your strategy in any way?”

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Schwarzenegger answered: “Absolutely not.”


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