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Nuñez proposes panel to redraw districts

The Assembly speaker wants members chosen by the Legislature, governor and judges. He hopes to put a measure on the February ballot.

August 31, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- One of California's most powerful politicians is proposing a radical new way of drawing the state's voting districts -- one that would strip lawmakers like him of the power to create "safe" seats.

The proposal, from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, would give the once-a-decade task to an independent panel chosen by the governor, the Legislature and a group of judges. Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat, hopes to ask voters to approve the idea in February when they choose presidential primary candidates.

Theoretically, the measure would balance some voting districts more evenly between Democrats and Republicans, produce more competition and thus result in more moderate winners.

"It'll align the Legislature a lot closer to the people of California," Nuñez said.

Many existing districts have been stretched, or gerrymandered, to collect a preponderance of Democratic or Republican voters so incumbents don't have to work hard for reelection. Such "safe" districts tend to elect ultra-liberal Democrats or hard-core Republicans, leaving the Legislature with a dearth of centrists who can bridge the divide.

If Nuñez's proposal succeeds, it would mark the first change since the 1920s in how California remaps political boundaries; nine previous attempts failed.

Nuñez's motives contain at least some self-interest. He is backing a separate measure for the Feb. 5 ballot that would extend the stay of sitting lawmakers. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he will not endorse that measure unless it is coupled with a redistricting overhaul.

The governor blames California's many weirdly shaped political districts for polarizing the Legislature and hindering progress on the state's most intractable problems.

Nuñez said Thursday that the term-limits measure "stands on its own two feet" and "runs a decent chance of passing" even without Schwarzenegger's backing.

There is no guarantee the speaker will get his measure on the ballot. The Legislature is set to adjourn in 11 days, and lawmakers still have hundreds of issues to consider.

And it is unclear whether Nuñez's counterpart in the state Senate, President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), would go along with it. Nuñez said he had not yet pitched the proposal to Perata.

But the Senate leader told reporters Thursday that he agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that California could jeopardize the slim Democratic majority in Congress if it were to give up partisan redistricting while other Republican-dominated states, such as Texas, retain the power to draw districts that help elect Republicans.

"When Texas allows it," Perata said, "we will."

Nuñez appeared, however, to have support from the leader of the Assembly's minority Republicans, whose votes would be needed to place the measure on the ballot.

"I think it meets our concerns, but details need to be worked out," said Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines of Clovis.

Twelve states now give primary responsibility for map-making to a commission rather than their legislatures. Lawmakers in California have been batting about ideas for an independent commission since 2005 -- the last time voters rejected the idea.

Nuñez's plan would have 17 commissioners. None would be current or recent candidates for the Legislature, Congress or the Board of Equalization; relatives of candidates or high-level employees of those bodies; registered lobbyists; or state political party officers.

Nine commissioners would be chosen through this process: Ten retired and sitting judges would nominate 45 people, from which the governor could strike up to six nominees before randomly choosing three Democrats, three Republicans and three members unaffiliated with the two major parties.

The last eight members of the commission would be four Republicans and four Democrats chosen by legislative leaders.

Final maps would require approval by two-thirds, or at least 12, of the 17 commissioners.

In April, Nuñez proposed that redistricting be performed by the state's Little Hoover Commission, a government watchdog agency whose members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. Some groups panned the idea, calling the commission too partisan.

Watchdog organizations said they were still reviewing Nuñez's new proposal, but liked the checks and balances it offered.

"It's a creative solution," said California Common Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng. "Each [political] party feared that the other party was going to game the system, and public interest groups feared that both parties would . . . collude to game the public."

The proposal is silent on the question of whether the commission would draw congressional boundaries. That's an issue, Nuñez said, that needs to be negotiated by all legislative leaders.

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