Friday, March 16, 2007

Early Feb Primary Chance To Support Two Good Reforms

As has been reported in various places, one of the likely reasons for legislators' support of an early '08 primary is the opportunity to place measures on the ballot supporting longer term limits and independent redistricting. If longer term limits pass in February, that gives incumbent candidates enough time to file for reelection by the March deadline.

The reporting of this deal is mostly negative, but I see this as an opportunity to pass two badly-needed reforms. Unlike many partisans, I fully support both longer term limits and independent redistricting.

Term limits have done some good in California. They've allowed a more diverse crop of legislators to take office, with more minorities and women walking the halls of Sacramento. A legislature that more closely mirrors California's population benefits everybody, and term limits opened doors for that to happen.

But ultimately California's short term limits (8 years for Senators, 6 years for Assemblymembers) have done more harm than good. As legislators are forced to retire, the institutional knowledge they've built up over time is lost, as are the inter-party relationships they've fostered. New legislators come in with the best of intentions, but soon find themselves hindered by a lack of experienced mentors and historical context. Consequently they depend much more on lobbyists for information about unfamiliar issues, and party leadership to tell them what to do. Knowing they have to run for another office in just a few years makes them all the more dependent on monied special interests and strict party loyalty.

Defenders of term limits claim that shorter time in Sacramento means legislators will be less "politicized." This is obviously untrue, as public servants are now forced to campaign for their next job when they should be focusing on the one they have. Term limit fans are also fond of calling candidates "greedy" for wanting to serve longer in office. This is ridiculous on its face - are you greedy for wanting to continue a job you enjoy and are good at?

Most every legislator hates term limits, but many of them oppose independent redistricting. Currently, California's legislative districts are drawn by the Legislature itself. And wouldn't you know it - in the most recent 2000 redistricting, the districts were drawn to protect incumbents from competition. Democratic districts were drawn around Dem legislators, and ditto for the GOP areas. Take a look at California's Assembly Districts and you'll see what I mean.

The legislature also broke longtime tradition in 2000 by failing to split each Senate District into exactly two Assembly Districts. This has created great confusion for voters, who are both unable to figure out whose District they're in, and create meaningful coalitions to pressure their local electeds.

Independent redistricting would take the power to draw the lines out of the hands of the legislature. Personally, I'm skeptical that it would create less partisan districts (Californians are naturally grouped into Democratic and GOP areas of the state) - nevertheless, the conflict of interest of legislators drawing their own lines is too much to stomach.

What's most important to me, however, is that Democrats keep a promise they made two years ago. In the 2005 special election, I campaigned with other Democrats against a proposition that would have required new districts to be drawn by an independent panel *immediately*. That was a bad idea, because the census figures for the state were 6 years out of date. During the campaign, however, Democratic leadership promised that if Californians rejected Prop 77, they would pass a better independent redistricting proposal through the legislature. Last year they had an opportunity with a good bill by Senator Allen Lowenthal. Unfortunately that bill failed. If Democrats don't make good on their promise, we won't be able to make similar arguments about bad propositions in the future.

Quite often in California, propositions address a legitimate issue in a faulty fashion. We need to be able to trust our legislature to solve problems in a better way when they ask us to reject a bad proposition. The independent redistricting debate is really about whether we can trust our government to do the right thing.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Let's get rid of term limits and partisan redistricting together. The recent legislative shuffles -- Councilman Alarcon to Senator Alarcon to Assemblyman Alarcon to Councilman Alarcon -- prove that term limits don't work. We don't have "citizen legislators" like we thought we'd get, we have the same career politicians, just in different offices. Make the districts moderately more competitive (there will always be the dyed in the wool red/blue districts but there will be a lot more marginal ones like in the South Bay and parts of the Valley) and we can "throw the bums out" when they become bums. Mix in real campaign finance reform and citizen can easily challenge incumbents.

As for the primary move... dang... oh well... At least we get more elections which means more money for advertising. At least the media will be happy.