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Redistricting faces an uncertain future

It’s now practically certain: There’ll be a measure on the November ballot to finally quash the Legislature’s self-destructive system of gerrymandering.

What’s uncertain is whether there’ll also be a rival measure placed on the ballot by the Legislature.

This is a much-needed reform that could wind up being loved to death by too many smothering embraces.

And it’s an excellent example of the need for another reform: a fix of the initiative system.

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We should bring back the “indirect initiative” -- foolishly jettisoned in the mid-1960s -- that allowed the Legislature and governor to tinker with a citizens’ initiative before it went on the ballot. Sponsors could accept or reject the lawmakers’ amendments. If accepted, the result presumably would be an improved product, the avoidance of campaign bloodletting and resolution of a state problem.

The problem here is infamous gerrymandering, which rigs elections to favor the party that already holds a given legislative seat. In California, that’s usually the Democratic Party. Legislators, in effect, choose their own voters rather than the voters getting a fair crack at choosing them.

Never thought I’d hear a legislative leader acknowledge it -- Democrat or Republican -- but Assembly GOP Leader Mike Villines of Clovis lamented to me last week that gerrymandering results in the election of ideologue extremists.

Because the Legislature draws districts so they’re lopsidedly either Democratic or Republican and aren’t competitive in November, most elections actually are decided in the party primary. Almost always, the most true-blue Democrat and red-glowing Republican are nominated. That makes for unyielding party partisanship.

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“You have real liberal and very conservative people getting elected and nothing gets done [in Sacramento],” Villines says. “We should slug it out in the primary -- and slug it out in the general.

“Citizens should draw the maps with no politicians’ involvement. It’s an inherent conflict of interest. I’m serious about it.”

For nearly three years, Democratic legislative leaders have promised straight-faced to produce a reform plan that stripped away the lawmakers’ power to draw their own districts. They’ve pledged to turn the chore over to an independent citizens’ commission. And they’ve reneged.

This taxed the patience of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some good-government groups: Common Cause, AARP, the League of Women Voters and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. They took matters into their own hands and united behind an initiative to create a 14-citizen redistricting commission.

The proposal also has been endorsed by a new reform outfit, California Forward, co-chaired by former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Thomas V. McKernan, chief executive of the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Schwarzenegger donated $550,000 of his political money to the signature-collecting effort. About 700,000 voter signatures are needed -- 1.1 million to be safe -- and they’re expected to be turned in to county registrars within a week or two. Once they’re validated and the secretary of state certifies the initiative for the ballot, it’s there for good. There’s no taking the measure off the ballot.

It has been speculated that the initiative sponsors might hold back the signatures while assessing the seriousness of recent rumblings of another legislative effort at reform. Maybe they could compromise on a single measure, it’s theorized. Forget it. The good-government groups have heard it all before.

“The chances of that happening are between slim and none, with the emphasis on none,” says Steve Smith, a political consultant for the initiative group.

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Outgoing Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) unnerved skeptical reformers recently when he told The Times that he plans to propose a sweeping legislative package that would alter redistricting, term limits and campaign fundraising.

Nunez would create a 17-member independent redistricting commission: nine members screened by judges and chosen by the governor, eight selected by legislative leaders. He calls it a “hybrid” commission designed “to provide checks and balances” against partisan favoritism.

The term limit change -- allowing a total 12 years in either house -- would be similar to the Nunez proposal rejected by voters in February, except there wouldn’t be any sweetheart bonus time for incumbents. The fundraising change would bar legislators from hitting up special interests during hectic legislative periods, such as when the budget is being negotiated.

“You look at the schedule of bill deadlines and you find committee chairmen holding [fundraising] events the same week,” Villines says. “I’m not saying anyone is doing a quid pro quo. But it just looks bad and gives the wrong perception. Common sense says it shouldn’t be done.”

If you get the impression that Republican Villines is cheering on Democrat Nunez, you’re correct. Nunez is catching the heat -- accused by reformers of lobbing a grenade in front of their swiftly moving redistricting initiative -- but Villines is the speaker’s silent partner.

Why doesn’t Villines just endorse the initiative being pushed by Schwarzenegger and the outsiders? “We’ve got to do it on the inside and show some courage,” he answers. “We in the Legislature shouldn’t abdicate issues.”

But Villines also has another motive: He thinks if legislators can start cooperating on political reform, they might come together on more issues, such as the water development that he and other Central Valley legislators covet.

“It’s not a strategy for leverage,” he insists, not entirely convincingly. “But we need to break though this partisanship and get into a cooperative environment.”

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Nunez told me he’s “not enthusiastic about mortgaging California’s future” by borrowing billions for water facilities. “More bonds? We can’t even pay the bills right now.”

As for the redistricting initiative, “it’s very bad -- very bad -- for Democrats,” he claims.

An assessment by Democratic map-drawers contends that the party could lose up to 10 Assembly seats.

Nonsense, say the initiative sponsors.

Nunez’s message: There’ll likely be Democratic opposition, regardless of whether the Legislature passes a rival measure.

Fortunately, the reform groups aren’t wincing. They’re plowing straight ahead.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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