Where politicians dare to tread

By Editorial Board
Published June 18th 2006 in San Francisco Chronicle
GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Year of Reform" came and went without any discernible change to the status quo in 2005. The state Legislature remains unduly polarized, captive to special interests and unwilling to take on many of the most complex and daunting problems facing California.

Schwarzenegger's "reform" effort morphed into a piecemeal package of worthy (independent redistricting), seriously flawed (a rigid budget formula) and transparently politically motivated (restrictions on union fundraising) measures that were all shot down by voters in November. There were two overriding messages from the electorate. One was disenchantment with Schwarzenegger and his "I-am-king'' bravado of the moment. The other was a frustration that voters were being asked, yet again, to address issues that should be resolved in Sacramento.

So, what will it take to produce a Legislature that will do its job?

Let's start here:

-- Politicians should not be drawing their own district boundaries, shielding themselves from competitive elections. The result is a more polarized and less accountable Legislature. California should follow the lead of other states where redistricting is handled independent of the self-interested legislators.

-- The voter-approved term limits of 1990 are too draconian: six years in the Assembly, eight in the Senate. These limits, which have been valuable in increasing diversity in the Capitol, should be loosened a bit to allow legislators time to develop expertise in complex issues -- as well as a greater motivation to focus beyond the concern of the moment.

-- The June 6 primary was a case study in what is wrong with our campaign-finance system: The special interests spent wildly and shot recklessly; the candidates made a mockery of spending limits in various ways and the public was subjected to a mud fest that depressed voter turnout to near-record lows. Candidates and would-be candidates at all levels complain that the fiscal demands of modern politics are adding to the length, stress -- and unseemliness -- of running for public office. It's time to overhaul the system so that candidates spend less time raising money and more time talking with voters.

What are the chances that these, or any other, significant reforms will emerge from Sacramento?

"Slim to none," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Pittsburg Democrat, who will be termed out of office this year.

Canciamilla said he came to Sacramento six years ago "naively thinking" that legislators could work together to solve problems. It wasn't long before his inclination for bipartisan outreach made him a pariah among his fellow Democrats. Too often, he said, legislators' response to a crisis is to make sure "the other guy got the blame."

Assemblyman Keith Richman, a Republican doctor from Northridge, is equally pessimistic about what he saw in his six years in the Capitol.

"Our representative democracy is broken," is Richman's diagnosis.

Canciamilla and Richman are promoting a measure that might allow these reforms to incubate without interference from a status quo that has proved remarkably adept at fending off change. Their bill (ACA28) would commission a "citizens' assembly" to develop a reform package that would go directly to the ballot. It is modeled after a citizens' assembly in British Columbia that proposed a system of "proportional representation" in elections; it fell just short of the 60-percent threshold needed for passage in May 2005. It will be on the ballot again this year.

Here's how the California plan would work:

-- Two representatives, one man and one woman, would be selected from a randomly drawn pool in each of the 80 Assembly districts. Elected officials, their relatives, lobbyists, campaign consultants and other politicos would be ineligible.

-- Members of the citizens' assembly would be paid $1,000, plus travel expenses, for their part-time, yearlong exploration of the state's electoral and campaign processes. They would then develop a package of reforms - or not, in the unlikely event they find nothing wrong with the system -- to send to the Legislature, which could offer its comments, but could not change any of the citizens' recommendations.

-- The citizens' recommendations would then be put to a statewide vote.

How has the status quo in the Democrat-controlled Assembly reacted to the Canciamilla-Richman citizens'-assembly plan?

You guessed it. The Assembly leadership has not even allowed a public hearing on ACA28. Meanwhile, bills to accomplish some of these reforms -- independent redistricting, public financing of elections -- are barely showing signs of life.

"The Legislature is not going to reform itself," Canciamilla said.

Assuming ACA28 goes nowhere this year -- which is what Richman and Canciamilla are betting -- advocates of a citizens' assembly are contemplating a signature-gathering campaign to put the concept on the ballot in 2008.

There is no guarantee that a citizens' assembly will produce the electoral reforms this state so desperately needs -- or even if it does, that the special interests and major parties will not ambush them at the polls -- but it's worth a try. It's outrageous and patently undemocratic that the ruling Democrats in the Assembly will not allow Richman and Canciamilla the courtesy of a public hearing on ACA28.

It's also instructive as to why this populist revolt is necessary.
 Express your views

For more information on the citizens' assembly proposal, and the main group behind it, the New America Foundation, go to www.NewAmerica.net/politicalreform.

You can express your views about the Assembly leadership's failure to hold a hearing on ACA28 by sending an e-mail to Speaker Fabian Núñez at  [email protected].