By Lou Cannon
Special to Calbuzz
California’s political system is broken. Hamstrung by unbending partisanship and the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget or a tax increase, a dysfunctional Legislature has persistently failed to deal with the state’s pressing problems or its debilitating structural deficit.
Reformers have responded with grandiose proposals for change, such as a constitutional convention, which have come to naught. Since the Legislature and the major political parties resist any and all reforms, Californians who want to take back their state have no choice except to make a series of incremental changes through the initiative process.
The first useful step in this process came in 2008, when voters approved Proposition 11, which will take redistricting out of the hands of the legislators and vest it in a citizen’s commission. The new districts will be drawn after this year’s census for the 2012 election. The next step is to pass Proposition 14, opening up elections so that the top two candidates in the primary, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. This provision would apply to most state and federal elective offices but not to presidential primaries.
Proposition 11 and Proposition 14 are best understood as companion pieces. Proposition 11 was needed because legislators protect their careers at the expense of the rest of us by gerrymandering their districts to protect themselves and their parties. The cozy, one-sided districts they created assured that there would be no competition in the general election. This effectively disenfranchised independents (known as “declines-to-state” in California), most of whom do not participate in the primaries. It also tended to drive both major parties to extremes.
Liberals have a disproportionate advantage in the Democratic primaries, conservatives an even more decisive edge in most GOP primaries. Moderates in either party who might appeal to independents in the general election had so little chance in the primaries that most of them chose not to run. As a result, many Democratic officeholders tend to be reflexively liberal—or at least in thrall to the public employee unions who finance them. Many Republicans, on the other hand, are rigid conservatives who stand ready to block even the most reasonable budget if it contains a whiff of a tax hike.
For the past decade, budget compromises have occurred only when a GOP legislator broke with his party on tax issues. The occasional courageous Republican who did so incurred the wrath of his party and often the loss of his job.
Anyone old enough (as I am) to remember the creativity of the California legislature in the mid-20th Century, when it was acclaimed as the best in the nation, can’t help being appalled by the present collection of ideologues and party hacks. Proposition 14 could change this by greatly increasing the number of independent-minded moderates in the candidate pool. Every voter would receive the same ballot, putting independents on an equal footing with party regulars.
Such a ballot might also encourage the parties to forth candidates of broad appeal to assure themselves a spot on the November ballot. There is, of course, no special virtue to being a moderate. On any given issue moderates can be as wrong (or right) as liberals or conservatives. But Proposition 14 would level the playing field. Polls show that some 40 percent of the voters consider themselves to be moderates, and they are conspicuously underrepresented in Sacramento. Proposition 14 is an incremental reform that would give sensible centrists a chance.
Lou Cannon of Santa Barbara is the foremost biographer of Ronald Reagan in the world, and a former political writer for the Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News.