January 3-10, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Let's Make a Deal

California's election cycle never actually ends. Thanks to ballot measures, recalls and term limits that ensure a constant stream of new candidates, the cycle never even hibernates. Indeed, by 11pm of each election night, jockeying for the next round has already begun. So it's no surprise that already, here in the first week of 2007, candidates for John Laird's state Assembly seat have already begun to test the waters. Among them are county Supervisor Mark Stone as well as Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly and Councilmember Ryan Coonerty. This despite the fact that the termed-out assemblyman's seat isn't due to open up until 2008.

In fact, even that could change. If a new deal modifying terms limits goes through, even Laird could become eligible to run again.

Under today's rules, Assembly members max out after three two-year terms, while state senators are allowed two four-year stints. So how did it come to be that term limits put in place by voters in 1990 (via Proposition 140) and strongly supported by over 75 percent of voters (according to a 2003 Field Poll) are back on the negotiating table?

It's all part of a deal to accomplish another goal that voters have increasingly come to embrace; namely, redistricting--that is, drawing state districts for Assembly, Senate and Congress in such ways that they actually make geographical sense and keep races competitive.

But that's never happened, because for 70-plus years, there's been a struggle, with the two major political parties on one side, and voters and reformers on the other, for control of the state Legislature. And much of that struggle has involved how districts are drawn, which in turn determines what proportion of voters of what political stripe those districts have, and therefore how safe those districts are for those parties and officeholders already in office.

Needless to say, voters and reformers want districts mixed by party, and the major parties want districts with lots of voters of their own, so that there's little chance of change. For instance, back when California was majority Republican, the GOP drew districts to keep the power. In response, organized labor came up with state ballot measures in 1930, 1948, 1960 and 1962 to overturn GOP control. All were complex; all failed. It took the California Supreme Court to toss out the GOP state districting scheme as unconstitutional in the '60s.

In 1981, a newly emergent Democratic majority turned the tables and did much the same thing, gerrymandering the entire state into lizard-, snake- and bagel-shaped districts. Republicans took measures to reverse that, drumming up ballot measures to turn district-mapping over to retired judges, in 1982, 1984, 1990 and 2005, and all, again complex and again partisan (most judges retired from past decades are white male Republicans), failed.

Meanwhile, even though California voters have turned down each specific redistricting plan, they have over time come to favor more and more the idea of taking the Legislature out of the hands of the major parties and their political machines.

That's what 1990's term limits bill was about, and since then, support for the idea of reformed redistricting among voters has grown to overwhelming proportions.

San Jose State University's Survey and Policy Research Institute polled voters statewide in late November and found that more than three out of four voters said the system unfairly favors Dem and GOP candidates over independents and minor party candidates, and over 50 percent of the voters say that California needs a new major political party--one less partisan, and less extreme, than either Dems or GOPs have come to be in their safe districts.

But what's wrong with safe districts? For one thing, when only one party dominates a district, its more extreme candidates often get elected, and introduce bills more extreme than the voters support: bills from the right that would ban all mention of sexuality in the public schools; bills from the left that would extend the full range of public benefits to undocumented immigrants; bills, in short, suggesting policy “solutions” that the voting public has made clear it doesn't support.

And as a result of this increasing divide between safe-district partisans and much more moderate California voters, Dems and GOPs have lost the majority of state voters to disillusion. Just 16 years ago, 54 percent registered as one or the other; now it's down 43 percent. Approval of the state Legislature is far lower.

So what could make state legislators, now basking in safe seats, surrender some of their safety? A trade of time for space, that's what. A loosening of term limits to allow legislators to serve their 14-year limit (or 12 years, in another proposal) in either house. In return, legislators would turn over district mapping to a group consisting of neither legislators nor retired judges (neither of whom the public trusts with the job) but a citizens group--electeds and lobbyists banned--selected by county election officials statewide, with a set number of Dems, GOPs, independents and decline-to-states so no one can dominate.

The deal is fluid--a half-dozen proposals are floating around--but Common Cause, the state's leading government reform group, is behind the idea, as are Gov. Schwarzenegger and a list of legislators whose number is growing daily. So this is why when Nūz interviews Assembly candidates for John Laird's seat over the next couple of months, none of them may know whether they're actually going to be running.

Welcome to 2007.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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