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Prop. 11 beats the alternative

The only argument of substance being raised against Proposition 11 is that taking legislative redistricting away from self-serving legislators would hurt minority communities. But now a nonpartisan think tank debunks that notion.

Prop. 11 would strip away the Legislature’s power to draw its own districts and turn over the once-a-decade chore to a 14-member independent citizens commission. Its only goal would be to draw sensible, logical districts -- rather than to protect incumbent lawmakers.

Some civil rights groups point out there’s no guarantee in Prop. 11 that the commission would reflect California’s racial and ethnic diversity. And it contends this could jeopardize the interests of minority voters when district lines are drawn.

The Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies looked into that argument and concluded that “the independent commission is likely to be more ethnically diverse than the Legislature’s redistricting committees.” More later on that.

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First, I’ll just say that all the other anti-11 arguments are flimflam and political sham.

(Full disclosure: My daughter works for a firm that is handling some of the Prop. 11 campaign.)

A Republican power grab? Prop. 11 is sponsored by a coalition of nonpartisan good government groups: Common Cause, AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, California Forward.

Democratic state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, through an aide, also came out publicly for the measure Wednesday. Lockyer is a former state Senate leader.

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“Allowing the Legislature to set its own district boundaries presents an untenable conflict of interest and on that principle he supports Prop. 11,” said Lockyer’s spokesman, Tom Dresslar. “He would never support a reapportionment reform that resulted in a power grab by any political party or that presented a danger of reduced minority representation.”

A power grab by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger? It’s the opposite. The governor has contributed nearly $3 million and campaigned hard for Prop. 11. But under the measure, governors would lose their redistricting veto power.

The real power play is by Democratic legislative and party leaders who oppose Prop. 11 because they’re desperately trying to maintain control of redistricting.

“There’s a fear of giving up power,” says former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys, another Democrat who supports Prop. 11. “Give it up and you never get it back.”

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Prop. 11 opponents also charge that it is “too confusing.” Well, almost everything is in Sacramento.

I’d have preferred something less complicated. But virtually anything would be better than the current system of legislators choosing their own voters.

Under the proposal, any frequent voter could apply to be a redistricting commissioner -- as long as the person had no political connections. Prop. 11 drafters really wanted to ensure that commissioners had no partisan agendas.

An applicant, in the last 10 years, could not have run for or held federal or state office, or been a paid political consultant, legislative staffer or lobbyist, or contributed more than $2,000 to a candidate in any year. Moreover, for five years afterward, an ex-commissioner could not hold office, be a lobbyist or legislative staffer.

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Three randomly selected state auditors would select the 60 most qualified applicants, divided into equal subgroups of Democrats, Republicans and “others.” The four legislative leaders could strike six each. That would leave 36. The auditors would randomly select eight commissioners: three Democrats, three Republicans, two “others.” And those eight would select the final six, two from each subgroup.

The commission’s final makeup would be five Democrats, five Republicans, four “others.” Approving a redistricting plan would require a supermajority vote: nine, including three Democrats, three Republicans and three “others.”

Yeah, that’s pretty Rube Goldberg. But the current process is utterly shameful.

In 2001, both parties conspired to gerrymander the districts to protect the political status quo. Since then, only four seats have changed parties in 495 legislative and congressional races. Ironically, Democrats lost three legislative seats.

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So there are very few competitive general elections in which lawmakers are held accountable to the voters. If there’s a fight, it’s in the party primary. The winner usually is the most right-wing Republican or left-wing Democrat, resulting in more polarization in Sacramento. There’ll always be party partisanship, but the Capitol could use less ideological polarization and more pragmatism.

Civil rights groups contend, however, that minority communities could get the short end.

“There’s no mechanism to guarantee that the commission will reflect California’s diversity,” says Nancy Ramirez, western regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “And just because the legislative committees haven’t been diverse in the past doesn’t mean it’s OK.”

Kathay Feng, state president of Common Cause, disputes that. She points to Prop. 11 language that requires the state auditor to select “voters in a manner that promotes a diverse and qualified applicant pool.” The final selectees must be “chosen to ensure the commission reflects this state’s diversity, including . . . racial, ethnic, geographic and gender.”

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“Short of quotas, which are illegal, we couldn’t put in stronger requirements,” Feng says.

The think tank report agrees that the ballot measure contains “criteria to ensure that the independent redistricting commission reflects the state’s diversity.”

Minority communities wouldn’t be any worse off than they have been with their Democratic pals drawing the lines. They’d probably be better off. Everybody would, except those politicians currently allowed to abuse their power.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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