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'Rashomon' in Sacramento

June 17, 2005|Steven Hill | Steven Hill is a senior fellow with the New America Foundation and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, 2003).

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling a special election for November -- the fourth statewide ballot in four years -- one gets the feeling that we've seen this movie before. But which movie is it?

Is it "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the Frank Capra classic in which an outsider battles special interests on behalf of the people? Certainly Schwarzenegger would like us to believe that narrative with himself in the Jimmy Stewart role.

Or is the movie "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," about the hero who turned into a monster? The Democratic-dominated Legislature would like us to believe that it's all about the governor, with the special election as an unnecessary and expensive power grab.

Unfortunately for the governor and Democrats, most California voters will see this movie as "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" -- two partisan sides so implacably and ridiculously divided that they can't find common ground even when they have common ground.

Let's look at the three proposals placed on the ballot by the governor.

First, the redrawing of legislative district boundaries. The governor believes that lack of competition in California elections, a real problem, can be improved by letting a panel of retired judges instead of the Democratic-controlled Legislature draw the lines. And he is hoping more competition will elect legislators more receptive to his policies.

There is just one problem. Districts drawn by retired judges are not likely to make California elections that much more competitive, experts say.

Because of where people live -- Democrats and liberals dominating the coastal areas, Republicans and conservatives more numerous in the interior -- it will be extremely difficult to shake up more than a handful of districts.

But what is perhaps more puzzling is that Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has announced that Democrats are willing to go along with Schwarzenegger, relinquishing the power to draw their own district lines. They just want the first election with the new lines to occur after the 2010 census, when redistricting normally occurs. This is a major concession on the part of the Democrats. Notch one for Arnie.

Not. The governor wants a new Legislature, and now. But given that redistricting by retired judges is not likely to produce that, the governor appears to be putting voters through a lot to gain very little.

What about his other two measures?

One would extend from two to five years the amount of time public school teachers must wait to achieve tenure. We need a special election for that? Split the difference and spare us months of TV ads labeling teachers as special interests, and the teachers retaliating and calling Schwarzenegger "Gray Davis on steroids."

The third ballot measure would limit the growth of state spending. It would peg spending to the average revenue growth in three previous years and allow the governor to make unilateral budget cuts when the budget falls out of balance.

Spending within one's means is a good thing. Like Schwarzenegger, many Democrats call for fiscal responsibility, so it doesn't seem that the two sides are that far apart. Do we really need a special election to settle this? When did negotiation and compromise become dirty words?

Here's what's going on: These guys and gals have quit governing. State politics have degenerated into all-or-nothing sandbox play, and voters are being asked to referee.

I say, get on with governing and stop the kindergarten antics. Government is about negotiation and compromise. No, this movie is something more like "Survivor: Sacramento." Except Californians didn't ask to be stuck with a crew like this.

Winston Churchill famously said, "Democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others." Schwarzenegger and the Democrats seem determined to prove him right. But it's not too late for them to sit down at the bargaining table.

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