Fabian Nunez is in denial. Nunez, the state Assembly speaker, told Times reporters Wednesday night that he didn’t see why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would bother taking his plan to alter how electoral districts are drawn to the voters, who Nunez thinks aren’t interested in such matters. Senate Leader Don Perata of Oakland said much the same a few days ago, and even a few Republicans similarly dismissed the idea. We wonder: Have Nunez and his fellow politicians forgotten that extraordinary election in 2003 that sent the popular movie star to Sacramento to clean house and fundamentally change how state government operates?
If Nunez (D-Los Angeles) believes that Schwarzenegger cannot get voters excited about redistricting reform -- which the speaker claims only political insiders care about -- he is in for a rude surprise.
Schwarzenegger could hardly pick a worthier reform than that of taking politicians out of the business of drawing electoral district maps. As he explained in his State of the State address Wednesday, he would assign the task of redistricting to a panel of retired judges. Political parties love carving out safe districts for themselves, and this gerrymandering is eroding the vitality of California’s democracy. In last year’s elections, not a single seat of the 153 at stake changed party hands. Having safe Democratic and safe Republican districts shuts out more moderate candidates of both parties, widening a bitter partisan divide that kills honest negotiation on major issues.
Because legislators aren’t likely to relinquish their redistricting power, Schwarzenegger is rightly threatening to push for a special election. That would allow Nunez to get a refresher course on Schwarzenegger’s talents as a communicator, particularly when selling a plan that makes sense.
Nunez said Wednesday, “If he calls a special election that is of no concern to the public and only to political insiders, then it’s going to be more difficult for us to hold hands and walk down the aisle together.” The best he could say Thursday was a grudging “we’ll discuss it.”
Democrats argue that Schwarzenegger is making a Texas-like attempt to grab more seats for Republicans. But state districts drawn by the courts in 1991, after legislators and the governor failed to agree on redistricting, created much more compact and competitive districts. The result was the election of more moderate lawmakers, even as Democrats retained majorities in both houses through most of the decade.
Changing the method of redistricting would have to be approved by voters whether the proposal came from the governor alone or was blessed by a cooperative Legislature. Surely Democrats can figure out which way would be better for them.
Nunez’s misstep over legislative districts unfortunately blurred his good counterproposal for helping to close the state’s projected $8-billion deficit in the coming budget year: Pick up $4 billion to $5 billion in revenues by closing tax loopholes such as offshore corporate tax havens and failed tax credits. Alas, Schwarzenegger echoed former Gov. Pete Wilson when he seemed to rule out a tax increase by saying “we don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.” Actually, it’s both, and even Wilson finally allowed temporary tax increases.
Democrats, by accepting the need for more competitive electoral districts, could hand themselves more power in negotiations over the budget, education reform, public employee pensions and government reorganization. If they don’t, Schwarzenegger may just keep bypassing the Legislature on important issues.