Repairing California Government
By David S. Broder
Wednesday 08 October 2003
Now that the miserable recall experience is over, California can finally get serious about repairing the damaged structure of its government.
The misguided effort to convert the broadly shared public discontent with economic stagnation and political gridlock into a recall effort against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was made possible only because Republican Rep. Darrell Issa pumped almost $2 million of his own fortune into a commercial signature-collection campaign. The recall ended with voters facing a rotten choice among two Democrats, Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante, both widely viewed as corrupted by campaign cash, and one Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been repeatedly accused of being a sexual predator.
One would hope that Californians would draw the right conclusion and be less willing to sign the next recall petition. But the reality is that the Progressive-era trio of populist experiments in direct democracy -- initiative, referendum and recall -- remains wildly popular with millions in the state.
That being the case, the next two California elections are likely to feature initiatives proposing serious structural changes in the way the state government operates and the way people gain office in Sacramento.
The March primary ballot will include an initiative that would reduce the majority required to pass the state budget from 67 percent of the senators and assembly members to 55 percent. The two-thirds requirement, which in effect gives veto power to the Republican minority, is one reason why budgets chronically have been late -- and why so many special-interest spending deals have been necessary to get anything passed.
The impetus for this change comes mainly from Democrats and liberal interest groups and is opposed by business, which calls it "the blank check" initiative. But it might actually make it easier for the governor and the legislature's majority to negotiate a responsible budget -- and to do it on time.
In November 2004, a business-backed, bipartisan initiative will likely offer voters a way to change the manner in which future candidates for the legislature and statewide office qualify to run. It would, in effect, move the contests from being highly partisan affairs toward a more nonpartisan model.
In 1996 Californians, by a margin of almost 3 to 2, approved a "blanket primary" for choosing party nominees. In 1998 the primary had a single ballot, listing all candidates regardless of party. The top Democrat then faced off against the top Republican, plus whatever independents qualified.
Both parties sued to overturn that practice, and in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the blanket primary on grounds that it violated the parties' First Amendment right of free association. Democrats should not be allowed to help pick the Republican nominee and vice versa, the justices ruled.
The new initiative is copied from the Louisiana system, in which the top two candidates, regardless of party, go into the general election. (But unlike Louisiana, which allows someone to be elected with more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, California would always have a November contest.)
Because there would be no official Republican or Democratic nominee, the parties could not, it is argued, claim that their constitutional rights have been injured. In most instances, the statewide general election would probably feature one Republican and one Democrat. But in legislative districts gerrymandered to favor one party or the other -- and that is most of them -- the runoff might be between two members of the majority party.
The advantages claimed for the system are that it would encourage participation in the primary by independents, the fastest-growing element of the electorate, and that it would break the pattern of Republicans nominating the most conservative contender in their party primary, and Democrats nominating the most liberal.
If that proved to be true, moderation, rather than intense partisanship, might become the prevailing pattern in Sacramento.
Believers in political parties, such as myself, would still object to the dilution of their role in elections. But the change has drawn significant bipartisan support, with former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, and state Controller Steve Westly, a Democrat, both backing the campaign. Garry South, Davis's political consultant, is one of those signed up to help promote the initiative, and pollsters tell me that voters in focus groups and surveys readily embrace the idea of being able to choose candidates from all parties in the primary.
A better solution would be to end the gerrymandering by removing the authority to draw district lines from the legislature and giving it to some nonpartisan panel. But initiatives to do that have failed repeatedly, and reform-minded politicians of both parties tell me they despair of ever explaining the importance of that issue to the voters.
But significant structural change may be in California's future -- and not a moment too soon.
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