Lesson Learned from Failure of Prop 77

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.