Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Proposition 11 would alter legislative landscape

SACRAMENTO — The last time state lawmakers disappeared behind closed doors to redraw the boundaries of legislative districts, in 2001, San Jose's 12-square-mile Berryessa neighborhood was carved up into four separate Assembly districts. The resulting map looked something like a jigsaw puzzle.

Why would legislators divide the heavily Asian-American neighborhood into four districts? According to several legislative sources at the time, the move was made at the request of a sitting assemblyman who wanted to secure his own re-election by boosting the number of Latino voters in his district.

Proposition 11 on the Nov. 4 ballot is designed to remove such conflicts of interest, ensuring that the once-a-decade redistricting job would be done by an independent commission rather than by self-interested lawmakers. Its proponents predict the measure would produce a less partisan Legislature, because districts would no longer be drawn for the primary purpose of protecting incumbents.

Faced with competition for re-election, the thinking goes, lawmakers would work to appeal to the middle-of-the-road voters that often decide general elections, rather than to the more ideological voters who usually determine primary winners. Since 2001, when districts were last redrawn to reflect the U.S. Census, the partisan makeup of the Legislature has remain unchanged; in other words, no incumbent has lost to an opponent of the opposite party.

The safe Advertisementseats that legislators now enjoy produce paralyzing gridlock, critics of the current setup say. Their Exhibit A is the state budget, which was enacted this summer a record 85 days into the fiscal year because Democrats and Republicans couldn't agree on taxes and spending.

"Because legislators would actually have to work to earn the votes of voters, they would be more responsive to their concerns," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit government reform group. "On key issues like health care and the budget and water, some of the extreme positions that legislators take are entirely out of line with what regular Californians are asking for."

Opponents, including the state Democratic Party, call those promises overblown and dismiss the initiative as a Republican power grab. The vast majority of money donated to the campaign for Prop. 11 has come from GOP donors, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is its most high-profile supporter — although the campaign also boasts some prominent Democratic backers, such as former Gov. Gray Davis.

Critics have seized on the initiative's convoluted proposal to select members of the 14-member redistricting commission; five seats would be designated for Democrats, five for Republicans and four for independents, which opponents say would make Republicans overrepresented relative to their numbers in the electorate. They also say the selection process could disenfranchise minorities, although the initiative calls for the board to be "reasonably representative of this state's diversity."

"It's a bad deal for everybody, but it's a worse deal for Democrats," said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the No on Prop. 11 campaign. "Nobody would look at the current system and say that it's ideal. But it's hard to know "... what exactly this panel could do."

Opponents also have criticized the fact that the initiative excludes redistricting for congressional seats; the Legislature would continue to be responsible for that. That compromise was made to limit opposition to the initiative from congressional Democrats.

"There's really no good public policy reason to exclude Congress," said Steven Ochoa of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes Latino participation in politics. The dual redistricting tracks, he said, would create an added burden for groups like his to attend redistricting hearings to influence the process.

Still, backers of the measure maintain that the proposal would be a vast improvement over the status quo.

Bill Hughes, who founded the Berryessa Citizens Advisory Council in 1973 and still sits on its board, said state legislators used to make frequent appearances at the group's meetings. But that kind of attention has become a distant memory since the community was split into four Assembly districts, he said.

"They said we'd have four times the representation," he said, "but it didn't work out that way. You're such a small part of the electorate that now they can forget about you."

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