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Feb. primary a good deal for state’s voters

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

California finally is joining the pipsqueak states to become a player in the 2008 presidential election. But there’s a chorus of cynical whining that is shortsighted and hypocritical.

The cynics are fussing about the self-serving legislators -- mostly Democrats -- who have decided to move up California’s presidential primary from June to Feb. 5 and give the public an opportunity to extend their term limits before they’re forced out next year.

The whiners also are moaning about the taxpayer cost of separating the presidential and regular state primaries, estimated at between $60 million and $90 million for both the state and counties.

Then there are the political experts fretting about the potential danger to the national nominating “process” of big bully California injecting itself into the presidential arena.

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Well, none of that is what really matters. Nor even will increased California “clout” be the most important outcome of an early primary.

The most significant result will be that California voters have an opportunity to choose their preferred candidate and cast a ballot while it still matters in the nominating process.

This is about the voters helping to select a president -- not about term limits or redistricting reform, not about spending $90 million out of a $140-billion-plus state budget, not about some nonsensical process or abstract clout.

It’s about the preferences of Californians being afforded equal weight with the voters of the other dozen or more states that will hold presidential primaries Feb. 5. It’s about crowding in on Iowa and New Hampshire, the spoiled twerps that the national parties have decreed must be allowed to go first -- because, well, they always have and will cry if they don’t.

What about some other small states being first for a change? Like Delaware or a Dakota?

If the national parties insist on dictating the rules for presidential primaries -- arguing it’s their nominees, after all -- then the parties should pay for the contests, rather than the taxpayers.

All this came to mind Tuesday as I watched the Assembly pass the early primary bill and send it to the governor for his signature. The supporters were all Democrats; the opponents Republicans.

Republicans declared they wouldn’t vote for the bill unless it specifically guaranteed that the state would reimburse counties for their election costs. Not to put it in writing, Republicans asserted, would be “simply irresponsible.”

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Democrats pledged that the state would pay. But they refused to delay the bill’s enactment by tacking on an amendment that would require another Senate vote.

The GOP hypocrisy was laughable. Two years ago, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger misguidedly called a $55-million special election in a failed effort to enact some “reforms,” Republicans never demanded that county costs be guaranteed. The counties ultimately got paid, but the GOP wasn’t very concerned when their governor was forcing the election.

It’s as if the minority party now is looking for any reason to quarrel, sick of all the bipartisan harmony that the governor keeps crowing about.

On Tuesday, Republicans attempted to turn around the argument, noting that Democrats in 2005 opposed the governor’s special election for cost reasons, but now don’t object to spending tens of millions on a separate presidential primary. That’s an absurd non sequitur.

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The voting on Schwarzenegger’s “reforms” could have waited seven months for the next regular election in 2006. Presidential nominating won’t wait. Moreover, it’s farcical to compare the value of, say, extending the probationary period for schoolteachers with participation in the most important function of a democracy: electing the nation’s president.

Then there are the incurable cynics who complain that the election process is being “used” by politicians. Wow! There’s a new wrinkle in democracy.

No question: Lame duck legislative leaders are motivated by the prospect of peddling a term limits measure in the nick of time to keep them in power after next year. Term limits flexibility -- allowing lawmakers to spend all their allotted years in one house -- should be approved. The current proposal is a little oily, however, because it especially would pad the terms of present lawmakers.

But that’s another subject. So is the independent redistricting reform sought by Schwarzenegger and Republicans. Voters could reject both those things and still cast ballots for their favorite presidential candidate.

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Voters benefit.

Legislators potentially benefit from more practical term limits. Republicans possibly benefit from redistricting reform and no more Democratic gerrymandering.

Schwarzenegger -- and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- benefit when presidential candidates pose with the popular local politicians kissing their rings. That’s already happening.

California clout in determining nominees and influencing federal policy may be illusionary. But the voters’ meaningful participation in the nominating process will be real.

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Because the process is running amok, the national parties finally could be prodded into doing in 2012 what they should have long ago: Junk this illogical system and set up a series of rotating, regional primaries.

Meanwhile, proclaimed Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) during Tuesday’s floor debate: “Gone will be the day when California voters are sideliners.... We are putting California squarely in the front center stage of the national political debate.”

It’ll be a very congested stage. But at least California will be on it. And by June, it will be dismantled.


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