Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A new initiative aims to derail redistricting reform

George Skelton wrote an insightful column for the Los Angeles Times this week discussing some of the formidable hurdles Proposition 11, the redistricting reform initiative, must overcome before the initiative's results are achieved. His column is online and excerpts are below.

Remember redistricting reform, the effort to strip from legislators the power to choose their own voters?

It's the power that leads to gerrymandering or, in effect, lawmakers rigging their own elections.

Proposition 11, sponsored by a coalition of nonpartisan good-government groups and heavily funded by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, passed by a thin margin (1.8%) in November 2008. It called for creation of a 14-member independent citizens commission to draw districts for the Legislature and state Board of Equalization.

The next once-a-decade remapping will occur in 2011, and take effect with the 2012 election.

Here's an update: Things aren't going all that smoothly.

Two problems:

* Not enough women and minorities are applying for seats on the commission, officials report. The panel's pool of applicants is heavily tilted toward old white guys. There's a concerted effort underway to recruit a more diverse pool by the application deadline, Feb. 12.

* It all could be moot anyway. A small group of Democratic political insiders is trying to repeal Prop. 11 and also torpedo a sequel that would extend the redistricting reform to congressional seats. They've filed an initiative for the November ballot.

The odds are that Prop. 11 will survive. The repeal effort is blatantly cynical, and Californians probably will see through the bunkum. But this election year is unpredictable.


At last count a week ago, about 6,000 people had applied. But 73% were male, and 52% were 55 or older. Whites represented 80% and Latinos only 8%. A mere 14% were from Los Angeles County, but 20% -- not surprisingly -- lived in the capital county of Sacramento.

Still, it should all work out. There'll be a large enough pool of women and minorities to seat a diverse commission representative of the state's demographics.

A bigger threat to reform is an initiative conceived by Michael Berman, a longtime Democratic strategist, redistricting guru and brother of U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of Van Nuys. The Bermans' goal is to kill an initiative that would also hand congressional redistricting to the independent commission.

The Berman proposal would commit a double execution by simultaneously burying Prop. 11. All redistricting would be returned to the Democratic-dominated Legislature.

But that's not how the so-called "findings and purpose" of the Berman initiative read. Titled "the 'Financial Accountability in Redistricting Act' or 'FAIR,' " the measure begins: "Our political leadership has failed us. California is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and we, the people (not the politicians), need to prioritize how we spend our limited funds. We are going broke. . . . "

And so forth with paragraph after paragraph of pot and kettle bilge. Based on Sacramento history, the independent commission won't spend any more money on redistricting than the Legislature has, and its meetings will be open, unlike the lawmakers' plotting behind locked doors.

"I'd be embarrassed to write that, and I'm a hack," says Rick Claussen, campaign consultant for the congressional redistricting reform. That initiative is being funded so far by wealthy Silicon Valley physicist and political activist Charles Munger Jr., a bankroller of Prop. 11. Half the necessary voter signatures have been collected to place the measure on the November ballot.

"I'm trying to uproot this evil" of gerrymandering, Munger says. "It's a national problem, but this is my state so I'm starting here. Whenever the politicians get into the game of selecting the voters, instead of the voters being free to select the politicians, that's bad for democracy."

The Berman measure, which hasn't yet been cleared for signature-gathering, actually was officially submitted by UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein. He is an election law expert, first chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission and a Berman chum. For decades Lowenstein has opposed independent redistricting and is straight up about it.

"I believe that in almost all respects, redistricting is a political matter," he says. "There's one institution set up especially for resolving political matters and it does so entirely legitimately. And that's the state Legislature."

As for the majority party gerrymandering to minimize campaign competition, he says: "It's a complicated process of self interest, group interest and public interest. . . . A fair redistricting plan is whatever emerges from the political process of compromise and competition."

"If the other party doesn't like it, they should win the next election."

One hazard for reformers is that voters could become confused and vote against both measures. That would be fine with the Berman group. They'd at least prevent pesky citizens from drawing congressional districts.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A fresh perspective on reforming California government

These days everyone is talking about reform, many initiatives are in circulation and voters are likely to face various, and possibly competing approaches on the November 2010 ballot. One of the freshest perspectives I have heard recently came from Susan Rose, a former member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors whose essay, "State Government Badly in Need of Reform", appeared in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. An excerpt is below:

Is it possible to reshape the way California is governed?

At a time of continuing unhappiness with the governor and Legislature, several groups have issued proposals that would redesign the financial structure of the state. But now is the time to not only rethink the fiscal systems of California but to redesign how services are delivered.


Here are areas that need to be considered in the reform movement and in any debate about governing the state:

Special districts

Special districts are a holy grail in California communities, but are they still needed? Many began when and where services did not exist. Today, according to Peter Detwiler, staff director of the state Senate's Local Government Committee, California has about 3,400 special districts. Many counties have multiple water, sewer, fire and transportation districts. Why not consolidate or annex them to local municipalities? The administrative savings alone would be worth millions to taxpayers, and more-efficient services would result.

Regional government

Counties have been the real losers in this last budget go-round. They perform many of the same services that cities provide and also those that are mandated by the state: public and mental health, social services, tax collection, courts and probation.

Why not create regional forms of government that would reduce duplication? Counties can provide services that cover larger geographical areas, and cities can serve the day-to-day needs of their communities such as land-use planning, public works, building safety, parks and recreation, and police.

If cities are too small to provide their own police departments, they can contract with neighboring communities; it is done frequently throughout the state. Counties can contract with nearby cities to provide day-to-day municipal services for their own rural areas. The elimination of some of these functions would result in huge savings to local governments and more streamlined delivery of services.


Consolidating services

California has 58 counties. Each presents a laboratory of opportunities for reshaping government. Santa Barbara County has a population of 405,000 and 10 fire protection agencies. Services are provided by some of the cities, the county, special districts, and state and federal programs that include firefighting. In some areas, training and communication systems have already been combined. Small communities can be very protective of their fire departments, but a single consolidated fire service program could provide greater resources and increased service levels. Why not unify all county fire programs into one area-wide agency?

What I especially like about Ms. Rose's suggestions is that not only would streamlining and reorganization of government services likely result in the provision of better services, it also would improve government accountability. Right now just about every level of government in California is involved in just about every kind of government service. This overlapping of jurisdictions makes it difficult, if not impossible for voters to know who to go to when they need help or have a complaint or question. Streamlining government services would make it easier for the public to know which political leaders are responsible for delivering those services and rewarding or punishing them according to performance.

Carnegie Corporation report looks back on election reform

The Carnegie Corporation of New York recently released this report summarizing the election reform work it has funded over the past eight years, following the 2000 Presidential election and Bush v. Gore. The report provides an historical overview of a pivotal time in U.S. democracy, featuring comments and stories from many of the people and organizations that Carnegie has supported. It also contains a fascinating map (on Page 7) of the 50 United States and the circumstances under which voters in those states who are felons can get their voting rights reinstated, produced by the Brennan Center for Justice.