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Lesson Learned from Failure of Prop 77

by Indy, published

Nothing short of a massive dose of retroactive common sense -- not to mention a shot of banking industry regulation -- could have stopped the foreclosure crisis that's been the nuclear reactor in California's budget meltdown. Nothing short of a sprinkling of pixie dust that would erase the state's onerous two-thirds approval requirement for budgets will loosen the current legislative long-jam.

Okay, but voters could have ameliorated both impacts if we'd approved Proposition 77, a constitutional amendment that would have given judges the power to determine redistricting in the state, three years ago. That's worth remembering, and not just because Californians need more regret right now.

There are lessons for voters in Prop 77's failure. We have a chance for a do-over now that Proposition 11 has passed, so the teachings are important. Had Prop 77 passed, a panel of retired judges would have created new House of Representatives, Assembly and state Senate districts, and voters would have elected officials based on those boundaries starting in 2006.

Instead, we're choosing decision-makers by gerrymandered districts such as the 46th Congressional that snakes from Palos Verdes Estates to Costa Mesa and nips at Long Beach. You could have dropped spaghetti on a state map and crafted boundaries that make more logical sense.

But the 2001 redistricting was chock full of political sense. The Legislature drew the lines with an eye toward protecting the partisan status quo of eight years ago.

The result: Of the state's 173 legislative and Congressional districts, only 14 were toss-ups, according to a 2005 report by Common Cause. In the rest, the party that held office in 2000 was virtually guaranteed a lock for the next decade.

There have been a few exceptions:

The 12th Senate, a terrier-shaped district with Salinas at the neck and Modesto on the muzzle, was drawn in blue for for then-Assembly Rules Chairman Dennis Cardoza.

But after Gary Condit's political troubles let Cardoza skip a grade and go directly to Congress, Republican Jeff Denham narrowly won the seat from a Democrat who handled more baggage during the high-priced campaign than a Skycap at LAX. The 11th Congressional District was supposed to have been Republican Richard Pombo's forever and ever amen, but a slight shift in voter registration paired with Pombo's unpopular environmental stances and ties to Bush gave the seat to the Democrats two years ago.

The partisan scorecard in Sacramento, though, remains the same. Republicans have 37 percent of the Senate and 36 percent of the Assembly, enough to block budget legislation under the two-thirds requirement. It's a sweet deal: Obstruction without responsibility.

Not that the Democrats' behavior has been remarkably better. They don't have the super-majority, but they have numbers overwhelming enough that they don't have to reach out. All they have to do is talk a few enemy troops into crossing over.And everyone keeps playing the same game because they know their seats are safe. How much would you fret over your annual job review if you already knew what the result was going to be?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Prop 77 would have created meaningful review had it been approved. In setting up an independent panel, it would have taken redistricting away from the folks with the conflicts of interest.

Opponents decried loss of legislative seniority the proposition could trigger while they funneled wads of cash into a campaign to preserve their own seniority. They labeled the proposal a Schwarzenegger power grab, but even it if were, it would have been a case of wrong making right because in the long run independently drawn districts work for the voters. And that information was available when we voted in 2005.

A study that year at The Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College found that the 1990 court-crafted redistricting resulted in "competitive" districts even though the judges never took political competition into account. Competition flowed naturally from factors they did consider, such as keeping together cities, respecting communities of interest and keeping district contiguous.

Prop 11's passage gives us a chance to get it right this time, but that doesn't mean we can sleep through the next redistricting. There's still politics in the process, but at least there are checks.

The ultimate check, though, is the voter. It's up to us to pay attention this time, so we don't wind up with tangled districts and continued tangled government.

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