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A Perfect Political Storm

Redistricting and government reform could dominate 2005.

August 15, 2004|Tony Quinn | Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California's legislative and congressional campaigns.

SACRAMENTO — Forget the 2004 election cycle. The big campaigns in California could occur next year. Two issues simmering this summer could boil over onto the political scene with special elections in 2005. One is the perennial partisan battle over drawing legislative and congressional district lines; the other is the vast reorganization of state government proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Performance Review panel, his version of blowing up the boxes of state government.

The commission's recommendations were unveiled last month to a chorus of boos from legislative Democrats and assorted interests in Sacramento. No surprise there; the structure of state government that has emerged over the last 45 years is largely the handiwork of the majority Democratic Party.

The heart of the proposed reforms is a rollback of the fourth branch of government: the 100-plus appointed boards and commissions that set many environmental and economic policies yet are not directly accountable to the electorate.

The Schwarzenegger administration will try to abolish many of these boards and shift their powers to the executive branch.

Environmentalists, consumer activists and labor organizations like these autonomous boards, commissions and independent bodies because they diffuse executive branch power. Business leaders who complain about California's unfriendly business climate often are talking about these same bureaucratic activists.

When Pat Brown and the Democrats won control of Sacramento in 1958, they set California on the path of activist government. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton was present at this creation and spent his career building up the current regulatory scheme. He won't abandon it easily. Add scores of lobbyists who make their living traversing the bureaucratic maze, powerful public employee unions whose livelihood depends on a large bureaucracy and interest groups willing to defend every board no matter how obscure its role, and you can readily see that the governor's task in pushing through any kind of bureaucratic reform will be monumental indeed.

Schwarzenegger's reorganization plan must first go to an oversight commission he appointed, which will hold public hearings statewide. It will next land at the state's Little Hoover Commission, which will make its recommendations. Then the Legislature gets it. Though the governor can implement some reforms through executive fiat, the big-ticket items will have to survive a legislative veto.

Assuming a reorganization proposal arrives in the Legislature later this year and is rejected in early 2005, Schwarzenegger will have time to qualify one or more reform measures for the ballot. He could then call a special election on his proposals around November 2005 and let voters decide the issue. Because initiatives must be about only one subject, Schwarzenegger might have to submit several measures, each of which would reform one element of the bureaucracy.

Nothing on the 2004 ballot could match the controversy of such a move. Yet if Schwarzenegger is serious about reforming state government, he might have no choice but to take governmental reorganization to the people. The stakes would be clear: an assault on interest-group liberalism that would radically reshape government and concentrate more political power in the hands of the executive.

But even before Schwarzenegger can light the fuse to blow up the boxes of state government, he may face another choice sure to outrage the Legislature's Democratic leaders. Conservative activist Ted Costa, who initiated the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, is gathering signatures for an initiative that would redraw California's legislative and congressional districts in time for the 2006 election. If passed, his measure would order a new redistricting immediately and give that job to a nonpartisan commission of retired appellate justices.

The redistricting initiative would be the flip side of Schwarzenegger's attack on established power. One targets Democratic political power, the other their policy control.

For new districts to be in place by 2006, however, a special election would be necessary early next year. Combine that with a possible second special election later in the year on Schwarzenegger's governmental reorganization and you have all the makings of a mighty big battle.

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