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Reform attempt flies into stiff wind

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A Republican state senator proposed political reform legislation Wednesday that hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in a Sacramento summer. And that’s too bad, because it could cure some serious ills.

The proposed state constitutional amendment would, in one package:

* Repeal legislative term limits, but not until 2016. Any benefit to current legislators would be diluted and delayed far into the future.

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* Strip the Legislature of its power to draw district maps, a flagrant conflict of interest. An independent citizens commission would do the post-census redistricting once a decade.

* Require that any campaign contribution to a legislator or the governor at the height of Capitol wheeling-dealing -- during budget bargaining and the final month of the legislative session -- be reported within 24 hours.

* Hold back the legislators’ pay if they don’t pass a budget by July 1, start of the new fiscal year.

So this single tool could fix some problems that keep getting worse: Legislative inexperience and distracting political musical chairs. Elections rigged by legislative gerrymandering. Special interest money slipped without public notice to lawmakers as they cast crucial votes. Consequences-free budget lollygagging.

The legislative author is Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), 53, who regardless of his small frame, mild manner and easy smile can be a feisty and tenacious political battler.

Now in his 12th year as a lawmaker, Ashburn long has advocated redistricting reform. His own district literally was gerrymandered beyond recognition in 2001.

Last year, he pushed a redistricting measure out of the Senate, but it has stalled in the Assembly Rules Committee, which has refused even to assign it to a policy committee for a hearing.

“Let the doors open and the sun shine in and let’s have a public debate on this,” Ashburn exhorted at a sparsely attended Capitol news conference.

But the odds are better on the Legislature passing a rare on-time honest budget than on it passing Ashburn’s measure and placing it on the November ballot, as he’s asking.

One insurmountable problem for Ashburn is that he is a lowly Republican in a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Democrats aren’t going to allow a Republican to claim credit for any political reform if they can help it.

Democratic Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, also a failed redistricting reformer, supports Ashburn’s measure and stood with him at the news conference. But that carries no weight in the Assembly, whose leadership has been feuding with Senate bosses.

Another reason that Ashburn’s measure probably is doomed is because Democrats simply refuse to give up the power -- as the perpetual majority party -- to carve up districts in their own best interests.

In 2001, the GOP joined in the self-protection conspiracy. Democrats and Republicans mapped out districts that protected the political status quo and practically eliminated competition in November elections, robbing voters of a meaningful choice.

In the last three election cycles, only four seats have changed parties in 495 California legislative and congressional races.

Congressional districts would be exempt from Ashburn’s proposal and continue to be drawn by the Legislature. It isn’t a direct conflict of interest for legislators to shape congressional districts.

But the important thing politically is that the exemption will head off an opposition campaign by whining members of Congress who don’t trust an independent commission to guard their interests.

There’s one more reason that Ashburn’s proposal isn’t likely to survive. Republicans are skittish about voting against term limits, believing that they’re popular with the public.

Ashburn isn’t sure about that. Proposition 93, which would have altered term limits, was rejected by voters last month because the measure was tainted with the self-serving poison of Democratic legislative leaders trying to extend their reigns, the senator says. Even so, the proposal failed by only seven percentage points. And term limits barely passed initially in 1990.

“I think people are willing to seriously consider the repeal of term limits if legislators currently serving do not benefit,” Ashburn said.

“Term limits are a disaster for California,” the senator told me. “They created a dysfunctional Legislature. They empowered the unelected -- the lobbyists, the career bureaucrats. Knowledge and experience are power. And what you have is the experience and knowledge residing with lobbyists for special interests.”

Ashburn made a little-realized point: Many voters think that term limits booted controversial Democrat Willie Brown from the speakership in 1995. They didn’t. He was ousted by Republicans who briefly took over the Assembly after a fair, nonpartisan, court-ordered redistricting.

Redistricting reformers do have another horse to ride this year, one that looks like a potential winner. It’s a single-issue measure -- independent redistricting only -- and is bipartisan. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backs it. So does former state Controller Steve Westly, a Democrat. And Democratic Treasurer Bill Lockyer -- a former Senate leader -- is about to endorse the initiative.

Common Cause, AARP, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters all are supporters.

The governor Wednesday contributed $250,000 from his campaign kitty, on top of $50,000 he previously had donated. That’s helping to pay for the collection of voter signatures.

Schwarzenegger and the others lost patience with the Legislature and concluded that it never would surrender the power to shamelessly gerrymander.

“While the Ashburn thing is interesting, the bipartisan initiative is the only real hope for redistricting reform,” says Adam Mendelsohn, a private consultant and Schwarzenegger advisor. “Those people in the Legislature will just sit and debate it for hours and get nothing done.”

Right now, Ashburn would be happy with a debate.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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