Political change is coming to California

Although “reform” is in the eye of the beholder, two ballot measures approved this year by Californians will change the state’s political landscape — creating an open primary and an independent body to draw new legislative district lines, the process known as redistricting.

Both have been touted by outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other supporters as major transformers of how business is done in the Capitol. By making it easier to elect more centrist candidates, it is claimed that the changes will undo the paralysis and polarization that marks the Legislature.  Others say the impact won’t be as dramatic and certainly whatever effect either change has won’t be felt until at least 2012 and, more likely, the 2014 elections. 

Both changes — Proposition 14 in June and Proposition 20 in November — were opposed by most incumbent politicians. Proposition 20 expanded the powers of an independent 14-person redistricting commission approved by voters in 2008 to include California’s congressional delegation. Voters defeated a rival measure, Proposition 27, backed by the congressional delegation and incumbent state legislators which would have abolished the commission.

     “The politicians and the political parties spent millions of dollars on this to try and undo the historic redistricting reform we passed in 2008,” Schwarzenegger said last month in a radio address.  “That reform takes the power to draw legislative district lines away from the politicians and the political parties and gives it to the people,” the GOP governor said. “This will lead to more competitive races and fewer hyper-partisan legislators, thus reducing gridlock and increasing cooperation and compromise.”

The membership of the commission has been selected but both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker John Perez have complained there are no members from Los Angeles, the state’s largest city. That could be the foundation of a legal challenge under the Voting Rights Act claiming  the commission fails to represent a large chunk of state voters.

Proposition 14, which creates a system where the top two primary vote-getters (regardless of party) advance to the November ballot, was one of the few issues in recent memory the state Republican and Democratic parties agreed on.  The State supreme court recently refused to hear a legal challenge to the proposition — although that doesn’t mean another won’t be launched before it takes effect.  

     “We’re not going to know the impact of those until November 2012 — and maybe not for four years,” particularly the ‘top two’ primary,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “Particularly the ‘top two’ primary. Washington state has had it for a couple of elections and it hasn’t had a huge impact yet.”

The Center for Govenrmental Studies assessed the likely impacts of Proposition 14 in a report issued prior to the June election. 

However, another significant change by voters will take effect in 2011: allowing approval of a state budget by a majority vote.  Previously, a two-thirds vote was required giving Republicans leverage over the spending plan’s contents, because although Democrats hold comfortable majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, they do not have “super majorities.”  Under Proposition 25, tax increases would still require a two-thirds vote and lawmakers would forfeit their pay for every day past their June 15 constitutional deadline to send a budget to the governor.  While the change doesn’t guarantee better content in the state’s spending plan, it does virtually assure more timely passage.

This year’s record 100-day late document was rife with one-time “solutions”, and overstated money the federal government would send to the state by $4 billion.  That budget’s gimmicks helped grow the state’s projected shortfall to $25.4 billion over 18 months if lawmakers and the governor do nothing.

     “There will be a budget on time. It might be cobbled together but it will be passed,” said Stern. “And that will create more certainty for vendors and for cities and counties waiting months for the state to say how much money they’re going to get. Eighty to 90 percent of the money will be given out the same every year because spending formulas dictate that but until a budget is passed the money can’t be given out.”

An abundance of other ideas on ways to improve the operation of the state have been proposed by lawmakers, think tanks and voters. Everything from changing to a unicameral Legislature to shifting more authority to cities and counties.   Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The California Constitution Revision Commission issued a 103-page report — not counting another 50-odd pages of appendixes — in 1996 that echoes many of the proposals sounded today.

Stern’s group, for example, wants initiatives to be vetted by the Legislature bfore being placed on the ballot. If proponents and lawmakers can work out a deal, the measure wouldn’t go on the ballot and would instead be passed as legislation.  The group also wants to reduce state campaign contribution limits — $3,900 for legislative races and $26,000 for a gubernatorial candidate — to the federal maximum of $2,400.

So far, even before the constitution revision commission, efforts at recalibrating state government have largely gone nowhere, legislatively or at the ballot box.  An ambitious overhaul of state government, including a two-year budget and requiring any piece of legislation, above a certain cost threshold, to identify a funding source, failed to garner the financial backing to place it on the ballot.  When California Forward, the think tank that proposed the idea, divided the elements of the plan into bills in hopes some would be approved by lawmakers, the effort fizzled.  A group trying to mount a state constitutional convention gave up for lack of cash.

Some advocates for change believe they may have more success with the creation of the Think Long Committee for California —  and the $20 million commitment to back up its efforts.  The genesis of the committee comes from Nicolas Berggruen, a 49-year-old billionaire, who told the Los Angeles Times in October he wasn’t interested in California politics, just “positive reform.”  His committee includes former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and former governor Gray Davis.  The committee is scheduled to make recommendations to Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011.

Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg is the co-chair of California Forward and a member of Berggruen’s committee.  Shortly before the election, he wrote a letter to “the next governor of California” — just as he did on the eve of the recall that swept Schwarzenegger into office.  In it, he describes Berggruen’s committee as a way to “make sure a government established in the 18th century can meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.”  The committee is scheduled to make recommendations to Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011.

And just as they did during the last legislative session, lawmakers have their own ideas about how to change the system.  On the first day of the new legislative session December 6, 12 bills and constitutional amendments were introduced including one that would restrict the hours the Legislature can meet from between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Any measure passed outside those time limits would not take effect.  Five of the measures were nearly identical, requiring any initiative submitted to voters that costs the state additional money to identify a revenue source to cover the expense.  Previously, efforts to do so have failed.

One proposal lawmakers didn’t offer was one suggested by Barbara O’Connor, the emeritus director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University Sacramento.  O’Connor says:

     “I think we should limit the number of bills introduced. They can’t fix anything big so they tinker around the edges. It costs a fortune and it’s stupid. I’d rather have them focus on the big stuff.”