Voters are trying to make government work
Step by step, California voters are overhauling a state political system that produces hyper-partisanship and gridlock in Sacramento.
There’s nothing to show for it yet but there will be, starting with the 2012 elections — assuming California government can survive that long.
It’s also assuming that frightened defenders of the status quo — party leaders, ideological extremists — fail in their efforts to reverse the reforms.
Voters can take additional steps toward fixing Sacramento in November. More about that later.
The incremental advance toward a more functional Capitol began two years ago when voters approved Proposition 11. It yanked the drawing of legislative districts from self-serving legislators and handed the task to an independent citizens commission.
Until then, the Legislature was allowed to gerrymander districts to protect incumbents and the political status quo. Next year, using new census data, the citizens commission will — we hope — create some districts that are more competitive, thus making the lawmakers more accountable to the voters.
Step two was taken by voters last week when they approved Proposition 14, the open primary measure. Starting in 2012 — assuming courts uphold the measure — there will be only one primary ballot, open to all candidates and voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will advance to the general election in November.
The goal is to force candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters than merely the ideologues in their own parties. And the hope is that it will produce some pragmatic moderates, an endangered species in Sacramento.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised millions to promote both Props. 11 and 14, took a victory lap last week to celebrate the voters’ approval of the open primary system.
The result was especially sweet for the unpopular governor because he had been demonized by labor unions as a sinister culprit behind the measure. Unions fear the election of moderates, partly because they’re able to bully liberals by threatening them politically.
“Open primaries and redistricting will fundamentally change the way Sacramento operates,” Schwarzenegger asserted in his weekly radio spiel Saturday.
“In fact, not since the days of [Gov.] Hiram Johnson, 100 years ago, has California undergone such a dramatic period of political reform.”
That sounds like hyperbole and legacy-embellishing, but it’s really not much of a stretch.
Two other landmark steps by the electorate were legislative term limits, imposed in 1990, and a two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases in 1978 under Prop. 13. But they were steps backward and the opposite of “reform.”
They were undemocratic — denying people the right to vote for whomever they wanted to represent them and forbidding majority rule on taxes.
Prop. 13 itself didn’t even muster a two-thirds vote, although it cut taxes.
Ballot propositions need only a majority vote. Perhaps if so many issues require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and on local ballots, state propositions also should meet that hurdle. Make ballot-box budgeting practically impossible.
But we’re getting off track.
On to November.
One measure on the general election ballot would extend independent redistricting to California’s congressional delegation. It’s sponsored by wealthy Silicon Valley Republican Charles Munger Jr., who also was a bankroller of Prop. 11.
The new measure would have little impact on Sacramento, except to also strip legislators of the power to draw congressional districts.
But the counterattack by alarmed members of the congressional delegation could result in a major setback for Sacramento reform. They’re sponsoring an initiative to repeal Prop. 11 and send all redistricting back to the Legislature for continued self-preservation.
The repeal effort is spearheaded by Michael Berman, a longtime Democratic strategist, redistricting magician and brother of U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman of Van Nuys.
Another initiative expected to be on the ballot would make legislative term limits more flexible. Now, lawmakers are limited to 14 years total — six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. The proposed change would allow them to serve in the Legislature only 12 years, but all could be spent in one house.
The idea is to calm down the wild musical chairs game of legislators hopping from one house to another. Assembly members, particularly, would become more experienced. And both houses would be more stable.
Sponsor of the measure is an unlikely alliance of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
“We’re trying to give legislators enough experience to make the tough decisions that are necessary,” says chamber President Gary Toebben.
A similar measure was rejected by voters in 2008, but there’s a significant difference in the latest version. The previous proposition would have covered sitting lawmakers. Some even would have gained bonus time in the Capitol. The new measure would affect only future legislators.
Also heading to the ballot is an initiative that would reduce the legislative vote requirement for budget passage from two-thirds to a simple majority. It’s sponsored by a coalition of public employee unions.
The two-thirds vote mandate for tax hikes would remain.
California is the only state that requires both a two-thirds vote for a budget and a tax increase. And it’s one of only three that requires it for a budget.
The result has been unseemly summer-long stalemates, vendors stiffed by the state and payments made with scrip as majority Democrats try to buy off a few Republicans with pork or other goodies. It’s no way to run a state.
Blame the rules more than the players. Fortunately, voters are beginning to change the rules.