Logjam sends coalitions down the initiative trail

It’s a sign of ineptitude within the state Capitol that two disparate coalitions of interest groups have launched ballot initiative campaigns to do what the elected representatives should have done.

Two high-profile issues are involved: water supply and legislative redistricting.

The Capitol hang-up over water is that Republicans and Democrats don’t trust each other. Republicans insist that any bond money to pay for dam building be doled out by some entity independent of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. But Democrats don’t trust anyone to spend the money wisely without legislative oversight.

With redistricting, the legislative stumbling block is the reluctance of many Democrats to surrender their gerrymandering power to shape districts to benefit themselves.


In both cases, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has failed to exert enough leadership to forge a compromise.

And the outside interests have run out of patience.

The interests also have almost run out of time if they’re to qualify their measures for next November’s ballot. They need to get official titles from Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and begin circulating petitions sometime next month in order to turn in enough signatures around May to qualify for November. So they kicked off their efforts publicly last week.

There’s nothing new about this scenario, of course. Our officeholders’ inability to solve real problems and to reform themselves increasingly has led to policy making by initiative, or at least the attempt.

Blame many things: The requirement of a two-thirds majority vote for virtually any legislation involving money; term limits that have zapped the Capitol of policy expertise and legislating experience; proliferating polarization, due partly to the gerrymandering that protects incumbents and eliminates two-party competition in elections; the escalating power of special interests that bankroll the lawmakers’ politics and pleasures.

And, not least to be blamed, the expanding initiative industry that lives off ballot measures and encourages their creation. (Full disclosure: My daughter works for a firm that is handling some of the redistricting campaign.)

Politicians have been fighting over water since statehood, but mistrust may be at an all-time high in the Capitol.

The big argument is over who should authorize the check-writing for building water facilities: the Legislature through its budget process, or a construction commission appointed by the governor. Republicans don’t trust the dam-averse Democrats to reliably appropriate the money.

“We need assurance that this is real, not a trap door that prevents us from getting surface storage,” says Senate Republican water honcho Dave Cogdill of Modesto, using the GOP euphemism for dams. “We’ve had to bring Democrats to this point kicking and screaming. We want to make sure we’re hearing more than lip service. If they’re just trying to hoodwink us, we’re not going to go for that. . . .

“If they’re allowed to pick and choose projects, we’re confident they’ll spend that money for other things. We’d be buying into a pig in a poke.”

An advisor to Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), who asked for anonymity, asserted that Democrats already have compromised a great deal -- agreeing to dams, especially -- but Republicans keep asking for more. The GOP’s insistence on no legislative oversight, the advisor declared, is bad policy when billions of borrowed dollars are being spent.

Perata had been negotiating with Schwarzenegger until recently and thought they were close to a deal. But when the governor outlined the draft agreement to Senate Republicans, they balked.

“We’ve negotiated until our knuckles are bleeding,” the Perata advisor says.

Still, both sides are hoping for a legislative agreement within the next month or two -- before the worsening state budget deficit really sours moods, claims all the leaders’ attention and prompts many lawmakers to question whether the state should be borrowing more money anyway.

A high-powered coalition of business, agriculture, labor and water leaders decided not to wait. Last week, they filed four $11.7-billion bond initiatives. They’ll poll voters and choose the most popular measure.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” says Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce who heads the coalition.

Especially at risk are fragile old levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which funnels drinking water to 24 million people and irrigates 3 million acres. It needs to be re-plumbed and made more fish-friendly because courts have cut back on water pumping to protect endangered species.

The coalition’s initiative would earmark $3.5 billion to help build two dams in Fresno and Colusa counties and expand a third in Contra Costa County.

Perata also has filed a rival $6.8-billion bond initiative supported by environmentalists.

Schwarzenegger is expected to strongly support the coalition’s measure if Capitol negotiations fail.

Last week, the governor formally gave up on the Legislature passing a redistricting bill and endorsed a ballot initiative sponsored by reform groups. In fact, he became the campaign chairman.

“The people of California are not served well by a system so gerrymandered that 99% of the incumbents get reelected in the districts they themselves draw,” Schwarzenegger said. “We need a system of truly competitive legislative districts so when lawmakers go home they can be held accountable.”

The initiative would establish an independent commission to draw legislative districts. Congressional districts still would be shaped by the Legislature. The reformers didn’t want to weather the big bucks opposition of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Democratic legislative leaders -- Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) -- reneged on a pledge to pass their own redistricting reform.

“I don’t want to sit here and say Nunez was lying,” says Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, one of the initiative sponsors. “I just don’t think he has the political juice to make it happen. His [Democratic] caucus members won’t let him.”

So once again, interest groups will bypass the Capitol and take matters into their own hands.