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CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE SKELTON

A key way to fight gridlock

August 28, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — For Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, nothing better illustrates the evils of legislative gerrymandering -- and the need for Proposition 11 on the November ballot -- than Sacramento's two-month budget stalemate.

I'd place California's ridiculous two-thirds majority vote requirement for budget passage higher on the list of culprits that create gridlock. But I wouldn't argue with Schwarzenegger's thesis: Gerrymandering tends to reward extremism in both parties and punish compromise, locking lawmakers into ideological corners.

That was especially true of the last gerrymander in 2001. The Legislature redrew legislative and congressional districts to protect the political status quo, keeping general-election competition to a bare minimum.

Districts were shaped to be "safe" for either a Democrat or a Republican. As a result, the real election battles have been waged in the party primaries. And since low-turnout primaries normally are dominated by party purists, the contests usually have been won by candidates who run the furthest to the left or the right.

Republicans pledge not to raise taxes. Democrats promise a laundry list of social programs the state can't afford.

Then they come to Sacramento and can't compromise.

"With the redistricting the way it is done, Republicans can only win [primaries] if they're way to the right and Democrats can only win if they are way to the left," Schwarzenegger lamented to a Los Angeles news conference Wednesday, pitching for his budget proposal that includes a sales tax increase, billions in spending cuts and budgeting reform.

One big problem for the public is that there is no real accountability for legislators after the primary. No current lawmaker running for reelection faces any serious competition in November.

So legislators who have been procrastinating and shilly-shallying on the budget -- holding up payments, for example, to private vendors and care centers -- won't have to answer for it in November.

Because of gerrymandering, there are few hot races even in "open" seats, where no incumbent is running: probably just one in the Senate and four in the Assembly -- out of 100 contests -- according to Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which chronicles legislative races.

Proposition 11, sponsored by a host of good-government groups -- Common Cause, AARP, League of Women Voters -- would seize the Legislature's power to draw its own districts and hand the job to an independent citizens commission. (Full disclosure: My daughter works for a firm that is handling some of the proponents' campaign.)

Congressional lines still would be drawn by the Legislature -- a failed strategic move aimed at heading off campaign opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). She came out against the measure anyway, apparently fearing it as an unwelcome foot-in-the-door to eventual fair redistricting of House seats. In fact, practically the entire Democratic establishment in California is opposed, fighting to retain its gerrymandering power.

Some civil rights groups also are opposed, contending the measure wouldn't sufficiently protect the Voting Rights Act.

The opposition campaign is headed by termed-out Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), who reneged on a promise three years ago to produce a legislative version of redistricting reform.

The Sacramento Bee reported Wednesday that the state prison guards union has donated $577,000 to a Perata political account to be used to fight Prop. 11. Most of the union funds have been delivered in the final weeks of the legislative session as the guards press the Legislature for a pay raise. They "ought to be ashamed of themselves," AARP President Jeannine English told a media conference call, referring to both Perata and the union.

Schwarzenegger has donated about $2.5 million of his political money to the Prop. 11 campaign. Recently, the governor said he has witnessed firsthand in budget negotiations the need for redistricting reform and competitive general election races.

Sitting in his conference room, Schwarzenegger told me: "They are saying things in here -- and I never want to repeat it because what we say in this office shouldn't be repeated -- but it's clear that their hearts are sometimes in the right direction. But they're afraid to go back to their districts because they'd get slaughtered.

"They could never win anything again. Their political career is over."

Schwarzenegger was referring to the Republicans he has been trying to lobby for a tax increase. But he added: "Same thing with the Democrats. They have those kind of fears."

With Republicans running so far to the right and Democrats to the left, the governor complained, "they can't meet in the middle."

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