Policy Today magazine cover
November 2, 2005

Redistricting via Proposition 77 is central to Governor Schwarzenegger's "Year of Reform." For the past 7 months, PT has discussed the issue with state legislators and public officials on both sides of the partisan aisle. With the special election less than a week away, PT's managing editor pulls together some final thoughts on the issue and what lies ahead—whether the governor wins or loses.

The California Legislature is 156 years old, and the governor has decided it's time to renovate the old house. The biggest hammer in his toolbox may well be Prop. 77, an attempt to break up the bipartisan gerrymander that resulted in zero of 153 legislative and congressional seats changing hands last year.

No one denies that the system itself is in need of repair, and the list of potential targets for reformers is a long one: term limits, party structure, rubber-stamp committees, closed primaries and dubious legislative practices such as the "gut and amend" all rate high. This year, however, gerrymandering is in the crosshairs.

The same Democrats who decry Prop. 77 as a power grab nonetheless agree that independent redistricting is an important step toward fixing the legislature. "I do favor an independent commission," says Senate President Pro-Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland),"but Proposition 77 does not provide it." Indeed, much Democratic chagrin arises from the specifics of the proposition and very little from the concept itself. So why are Californians seeing it on the ballot this November instead of in newspaper stories lauding a bipartisan deal in Sacramento?

"The governor and legislative leadership were very close to a deal," says Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford). "It was just a matter of timing and putting the right language on the ballot." Perata echoes the sentiment and is already looking ahead. "There is a redistricting bill that has been authored in the Senate," he explains. "We have been negotiating with the governor. I believe that we'll be able to get his signature on it and put it on the ballot next year."

Part-time legislature?

But each passing year that features special elections and acrimonious legislative sessions only fuels the growing discord among voters and legislators alike. "I think many of my colleagues don't understand that by remaining dysfunctional, by remaining detached from voters and not engaging in real problem-solving, we empower those who are eventually going to push for a part-time legislature," says Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburgh). Parra sees the writing on the wall as well. "A part-time legislature is on the horizon," she says, "and that's simply insufficient for a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world.

"Look around you," says Parra. "What major infrastructure projects do you see happening in CaliforniaBay Bridge?" Parra suggests that the reason has more to do with structural weakness in the government than anything else. "We have to fix the institution before any long-term public policy is enacted," she says. But isn't that what the governor is trying to do with Prop. 77? besides the $3 billion overrun of the

Trust me.

"The Legislature will never fix it," says Schwarzenegger. "Trust me." State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) coauthored a highly-regarded redistricting bill with State Senator Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), but it was bogged down in the legislature along with so many other reform proposals. With that in mind, the governor threw his muscle behind Prop. 77 and lifted it onto the ballot. Lowenthal and Ashburn's disappointment illustrates a cruel irony of the current system. "Without the modification of term limits," suggests Parra, "you're going to continue to see paralysis in the legislature."

Term limits have been a source of anxiety for legislators for many reasons. Besides depleting
the knowledge pool in the Capitol, weakening intrapersonal relationships and creating a constant campaign atmosphere, they simply restrict the amount of time legislators have to solve problems. "Senator Perata came to me and said, 'I'd like to fix it [redistricting], but can we also do something to change term limits?'" says Schwarzenegger. "I said, 'Oh, that's what you want! You want to extend the term limits.'" Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) offers a compelling reason why many legislators—Democrats and Republicans alike—want exactly that. "How can you have a 10-year vision with a six-year term?" he asks.

Parra outlines the prospective scenario for 2006: "We'll begin session in January. Everyone will go on their retreats in February. It will be interesting to see how many times we're close to not reaching a quorum because people are asking the speaker for a pass to go home and campaign for June. So, virtually nothing will happen until June. But when is the budget supposed to be passed? June 15. And in November, we're up for reelection. In addition, we're going to see six major bonds that are going to compete with leadership. What are we going to do next year in terms of long-term public policy?"

Taking it to the street

If Parra is correct and the legislature remains mired in its customary inefficiency, the alternative may come as a shock from outside Sacramento. "If you really want to change the dynamic here, it's not going to happen from within the Capitol." says Canciamilla. "Nothing will be done to change it legislatively, because all efforts to date to do so have failed; every effort has been killed. This will ensure more radical changes that will not be good for the long-term stability of California."

If Canciamilla's predictions about voter frustration become reality, Sacramento could be in for some real changes in the near future. "Even if Prop. 77 fails, at least the idea has come front and center and the voters have become aware of it," explains Assemblyman Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale), a supporter of the initiative. "I believe they can and do understand the issue, and they will demand change by 2012."

About Frank Holland

Frank Holland is Policy Today's managing editor.