Sacramento's boomerang reforms

California's 51-day budget stalemate kept Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers from focusing on such pressing issues as healthcare reform and water-storage policy. With a spending plan now in place, it still won't be easy to make progress on these issues. The legislative session ends Sept. 14, and tempers, especially among Republicans, are running hot. Success will hinge on the governor's ability to dicker with the Democratic majority. GOP lawmakers will have little say in matters without the leverage of the two-thirds-vote requirement that applied to the budget.

Virtually everyone blames the protracted and acrimonious budget fight on partisanship and polarization run amok. Some cite three reforms that, if enacted, could greatly lessen the partisanship and make for a more effective Legislature.

One reform is an initiative, tentatively slated for the Feb. 5 primary ballot, that would cut the total time state lawmakers can serve in the Legislature from 14 years to 12 but allow them to serve their entire tenure in either the Assembly or the Senate. The initiative's backers contend that if legislators could spend more time in one chamber, they would concentrate more on long-term policy than on short-term politics.

Extending term limits in this way would definitely alter legislators' time horizons. But there is simply no guarantee that politicians wouldn't use the extra time hatching long-term plans to seize or hold partisan advantage.

Think of the 16 years that then-Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia spent preparing for the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. And remember that California voters adopted term limits in 1990 because they thought career politicians were devoting more energy to self-service than to public service. The vote followed multiple political corruption scandals and -- surprise, surprise -- a record-long delay in adopting a budget.

A reform that its supporters believe has gained new momentum because of the budget deadlock is to change the way the state draws legislative and congressional districts. Last week, Schwarzenegger, along with former Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, asked the Legislature to place a measure on the February ballot that would take the mapmaking power away from politicians and give it to an independent commission.

Most districts are lopsidedly Democratic or Republican. In the last election, only one seat in both the Legislature and the state's congressional delegation changed party hands.

Real competition occurs in party primaries, which favor ideological candidates. The result is a Legislature made up of very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans who barely talk to each other.

If districts were more evenly Republican and Democratic, say supporters of redistricting reform, primary races would produce more moderates to compete in the general election. The result would be less partisanship in Sacramento.

If it unfolded this way, redistricting reform would make general election candidates more responsive to more voters, which is reason enough to support it. Its effect on polarization remains less certain, however.

Although winning a party's nomination would no longer be tantamount to election to office, candidates would still have to clear the primary hurdle, and a lot of California voters in those races place ideology ahead of victory. In the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Democrats spurned moderate Steve Westly for the more liberal and less electable Phil Angelides. Republican voters booted the state treasurer's race in the same way, picking oddball conservative Claude Parrish over moderate Keith Richman.

Redistricting reform, then, could still produce ideological candidates for the general election, but they couldn't, as now, count on easy victories. To win, they would have to spend more time raising money because they would face more formidable foes. But a major source of that money would be interest groups eager to hold them at ideological extremes. For instance, liberal Internet activists and conservative anti-tax groups contribute to polarization on Capitol Hill.

The most talked-up reform in the wake of budget gridlock is changing the vote requirement for passing a spending plan from two-thirds to a simple majority. Last week, Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) said he would introduce a constitutional amendment to accomplish that. California is one of only three states that require a supermajority to pass a budget.

If only a simply majority could pass a budget, minority-party lawmakers could not force last-minute concessions by holding it up, as 15 Republicans did in the Senate. If they wanted to leave an imprint on the spending document, they would have to work with the majority party earlier in the process. Bickering would supposedly wane, and deliberation would reign.

But after losing the leverage, the minority party would sink to new depths of bitterness. Like California, New York has a highly professionalized and partisan Legislature. Unlike California, it gives no leverage to minority-party lawmakers. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, majority tyranny is a major reason why New York's Legislature is the nation's most dysfunctional.

So if our state's current situation is bad, the unintended consequences of reform might not be much better. The situation is hardly hopeless, but we should not expect procedural tinkering to cure our political ailments.

John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad