Sun peeks through dark Sacramento clouds

Capitol Journal

Step by step, Sacramento is being reformed. And don't be surprised if the pace naturally quickens.

Reform is progressing incrementally just fine — leaving behind some ponderous, well-intentioned, foundation-backed think tanks with politically unattainable ambitions.

A whole industry of academics and free-lancers has been feeding off the reform cause — one example being the failed attempt to call a state constitutional convention to essentially blow up the current governing system and build a new one. Too dramatic. Too risky. Can't happen.

Thank goodness for some good-government civic groups, such as the League of Women Voters. And, yes, even special interests such as labor unions and chambers of commerce. They've been moving one step at a time.

I'm thinking particularly of independent redistricting, which voters approved two years ago and reaffirmed Nov. 2, and the "top-two" open primary, passed by voters in June.

These election reforms won't officially take effect until the 2012 elections. But if you're a half-smart legislator who wants to be reelected, you won't wait until 2012 to start moderating your behavior. You'll anticipate the historic political shift and begin to adapt now.

The responsibility for drawing legislative districts has been stripped from self-serving legislators and handed to a 14-member independent citizens' commission. The remapping should be completed by late next summer, based on new census figures.

Under the new open primary system, there no longer will be party nominations. There will be only one ballot, open to all candidates and voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will advance to the general election.

Both reforms should begin influencing at least some lawmakers during the legislative session that officially convenes Dec. 6.

That's because in 2012 they'll be running in new districts that, unlike 10 years ago, won't be drawn to ensure victory for their particular political party. Some districts will be more competitive and ethnically diverse, requiring candidates to appeal to a wider cross-section of voters.

And the open primary also will require candidates to appeal to a broader spectrum than merely their party base. The aim is to elect at least a few cooperative centrists who will work across the aisle to solve problems — not just squat in their ideological cocoons, whether on the right or left.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who strongly advocated both independent redistricting and the open primary, says they'll "fundamentally change the way Sacramento operates."

They well could.

"They are tremendous reforms that will change the way legislators think and therefore the way they act," says Richard Temple, a Republican political consultant who has managed many legislative races.

"Everyone will have to watch it. Every legislator will have to worry about what the majority thinks in his or her district, not just the majority of one party."

And, at least until next summer, legislators won't even know for sure the boundaries of their new districts.

Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races, says that the shifting political ground "absolutely" will alter legislative behavior.

"All of a sudden some Republican incumbents are going to be in serious difficulty," says Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant. "They're going to wake up and find out that they won't be running in lily-white districts."

In the last redistricting, Hoffenblum notes, some districts were made safe for Republican candidates by purging them of Latino voters. The Latinos were dispersed into Democratic districts.

One blatant gerrymander involved carving heavily Latino Oxnard out of a district in Ventura County, where the city logically belonged. The purpose was to make the district safely Republican. Oxnard was lumped into a safely Democratic district with Santa Monica and Beverly Hills.

What would Hoffenblum advise Republican candidates?

"Better start figuring out how to get people of color voting Republican. You're going to need significant Latino votes."

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book and a one-time Republican redistricting consultant, says that "when legislators learn what that open primary really does, they're going to be shocked."

Under the new primary system, asserts Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), legislators "will need to have at least some record or message that's going to appeal to the other party."

That means being less politically partisan and ideologically dogmatic.

And it couldn't come at a better time, with the nonpartisan legislative analyst announcing Wednesday that the state is peering into another gargantuan deficit hole for the next fiscal year — $25.4 billion deep.

Fortunately, voters on Nov. 2 also passed another landmark reform: allowing the Legislature to pass a budget on a simple majority vote rather than two-thirds.

That should end the hostage-taking and pork-barreling that has been needed to break summer-long stalemates and pass even a flawed budget.

Next year, there'll undoubtedly be an on-time budget. But it doesn't guarantee that it will be any more honestly balanced than the last few gimmicky spending plans that turned into red ink the moment the governor signed them.

The legislative analyst said deeper spending cuts were necessary, but he also recommended tax increases. Good luck.

The next reform needed is budget reform — a more credible rainy-day fund that limits spending. The Legislature has passed such a proposal and it will be on the 2012 ballot.

So will be a long overdue reform of legislative term limits sponsored by an unlikely coalition: the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. County Federation of Labor. It would limit legislators to 12 years of service — now they're entitled to 14 — but allow them to spend all the time in one house.

Sacramento is still bleak, but there are signs of a breakthrough on the horizon.

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