Political Reform: There’s a Way, but There Might Not Be a Will

California’s legislators are enjoying a banner year: passing an ambitious public works package and a rare on-time budget. But they’re flailing -- and failing -- on political reforms.

Lawmakers are human, after all. Like most of us, they find it easier to tell other people how to live their lives than to drastically change their own.

That’s their dilemma as they wrestle with political redistricting and campaign financing. The politicians are pretty comfortable with the current systems, even if there is an odor of conflict of interest and corruption.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the Legislature’s two Democratic leaders -- Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles -- hadn’t last year committed to offering voters their own redistricting plan if the electorate would just reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

The electorate did, with 60% of voters spurning Proposition 77. Immediately afterward, Common Cause commissioned a bipartisan poll that found 44% of the “no” voters saying they actually favored redistricting reform, but “did not want to vote with the governor.”


Unless there’s an August epiphany in the Legislature, however, Prop. 77 may be the last proposal voters see for a while that seeks to strip lawmakers of the power to draw their own district lines, thus choosing their own voters.

Sens. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) are pushing a constitutional amendment that would turn over redrawing of legislative and congressional districts to an 11-member independent commission, selected basically by retired judges and legislative leaders.

But the measure, which sponsors had hoped to place on the November ballot, is stuck on the Senate floor without enough support for passage. If it does escape the Senate -- and Perata predicts it will -- the proposal will face even stiffer resistance in the Assembly.

There, Nunez had hoped to couple redistricting reform with a bipartisan measure loosening term limits -- perhaps reducing the total years allowed from 14 to 12, but permitting all to be served in one house. He has about given up, however. It doesn’t poll well, he says. “Voters think we’re up to something.”

Without term limit flexibility as a sweetener, it’s not likely that Assembly Democrats will surrender the right to shape their own districts.

“It’s very difficult for members to give up any power,” notes Lowenthal, who argued fruitlessly for his proposal at a Senate Democratic caucus just before legislators adjourned for a five-week vacation.

“They say, ‘We’ve got the power. We control it. Why give it up?’ When you talk about fairness and reestablishing public trust, that argument doesn’t sell enough.”

Opponents were only bolstered by a recent Supreme Court ruling that gave legislatures a license to redraw districts whenever and however they want -- regardless of how gross the gerrymander -- as long as minority voting rights are protected.

Latino legislators, in particular, fear that voting rights would be weakened by redistricting reform. They’re worried that Latino communities would be carved up into multiple districts, diluting voters’ clout and reducing a Latino’s chance of getting elected.

“This certainly isn’t going to pass in its current form, and it’ll be an uphill battle to get anything out this year,” says Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), who favors the Legislature keeping its power.

“This is not about fair representation. It’s about how to get more Republican seats. And there’s a significant group in the Legislature that doesn’t buy it.”

Alarcon adds: “You’d have much more impact getting elected officials to vote their consciences -- and not their campaign interests -- if you had public financing of campaigns.”

A public financing bill did pass the Assembly, although the implementation language was deleted to assure enough votes.

The measure recently died a quiet death in the Senate elections committee, winning only the support of the panel’s chairwoman, secretary of state candidate Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey).

Under this “clean money” bill by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), state candidates could opt to let the public pay for their campaigns if they agreed to very tight spending limits.

Candidates being trampled by big-bucks bullies or “independent” operators could dig deeper into the public till.

“It’s hard,” Hancock says, “to get people who have been elected under one set of rules to change the rules -- even though they may recognize that the system is inherently corrupting.”

The bill’s most outspoken Democratic opponent on the elections committee is Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles.

“I’m open to public financing,” she says. “But I don’t like something being called ‘clean money.’ I don’t know what ‘dirty money’ is. Tell me, everybody here, are we all dirty?”

No, but too many are swayed by special-interest money, regardless of what it’s called.

The demise of Hancock’s bill has led to qualification for the November ballot of an even more liberal “clean money” initiative, sponsored by the California Nurses Assn.

Until corporate clout is corralled, the group contends, politicians never will provide adequate healthcare for Californians.

So the nurses’ Proposition 89 not only would provide for volunteer public financing, it also would bump up the corporate tax rate to pay for the $200-million annual cost and place a $10,000 limit on corporate donations to initiative campaigns. And it would significantly lower limits on private contributions to candidates who refused public money.

The business lobby will go all-out to defeat the proposal and, in a reverse twist, has recruited the help of veteran labor and Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman.

Few who prosper in the political establishment -- regardless of ideology -- favor reducing the strong inflow of specialinterest money.

This Legislature certainly doesn’t. But it still could do what the leaders promised on redistricting and rid itself of a degrading conflict.

George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at