Pete Weber and Jim Mayer: State political reform is working

150 150 John Guenther

This article was originaly published on the Fresno Bee website.

Political scientists still are collecting data, but the evidence is growing that voters are getting the political reform they wanted when they seized from lawmakers the authority to draw district boundaries, opened primary elections to all voters, and modified term limits to reduce constant campaigning.

The reforms — enacted by voters in 2008, 2010 and 2012 — were intended to reduce hyper-partisanship and political gridlock, encourage politicians to respond to all voters rather than party loyalists, and allow lawmakers to develop the relationships and expertise it takes to solve problems.

Most visibly, the Legislature this year demonstrated more capacity to solve problems in a bipartisan way — as voters will see on the Nov. 4 ballot.

It is hard to find a more controversial issue than water in California, yet this year the Legislature made hard decisions that resulted in a water bond supported by farm, urban and environmental water interests, north and south. It also was supported by nearly every lawmaker — both parties, both houses.

The measure will spend less than the 2009 bond proposal it replaced — lawmakers got to that solution through a more thoughtful debate on creating a sustainable water future, not by adding district projects to buy votes.

One other driver in the debate: The leaner bond measure, Proposition 1, is expected to be more popular with voters than the measure it replaced.

Similarly, exhausted by two decades of boom-and-bust budgeting, lawmakers this year crafted a budget reserve requirement that will mandate a minimum deposit of money in good years — and capture and save the spikes in revenue generated by the state’s highly volatile tax structure.

The reserve requirement replaces a previous proposal that was more complicated and politically divisive. The budget reform is Proposition 2 on the ballot.

Some of the credit for this new commitment to bipartisan solutions rightfully goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, who gets credit for governing in the middle. But there is another dynamic at play, as well.

Lawmakers say the political reforms are causing them to approach their jobs differently. Districts are not gerrymandered to be “safe” for uncompromising partisans. The top-two primary makes it harder to blame the other side of the aisle and encourages lawmakers to respond to voters in the middle. And the freshmen in the legislative session that just ended said they were building the relationships they need to be successful during a potential 12-year run in the same job.

The change can even be seen within the caucuses. Recently elected Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto were chosen by their peers not because they raised the most money for their parties, but because they have reputations for thoughtful problem-solving.

Plenty of partisans are complaining about the new rules. But the net effect is that Californians are getting more chances to vote for problem-solvers rather than ideologues catering to the extremes.

Consider this year’s races for state constitutional offices — usually slam dunks for the majority party in overwhelmingly blue California. Three of those races this season have become interesting issue-driven campaigns.

In the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, two Democrats — incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck — are putting forward significantly different visions for improving California’s schools.

Once ranked first, California’s K-12 schools are now 45th in the nation. More than 2.5 million public school children cannot read at grade level, and Californians can choose between two distinctive approaches to leadership on these issues.

While the state has come a long way toward balancing its books and settling debts, Californians still are concerned about the state’s fiscal health. Controller candidates Ashley Swearengin and Betty Yee are in a healthy competition to show voters they have the best ideas for improving fiscal management.

One of the reasons behind California’s low voter turnout is concern that monied interest groups determine elections and control the Legislature. Secretary of State candidates Pete Peterson and Alex Padilla are engaging in thoughtful, respectful debate about how to restore trust in government.

What may be most encouraging is that California’s elected leaders appear to be re-learning the art of good governance and are putting the focus on what needs to get done to make California a great place for everyone.

These improvements are not accidents. They are the products of thoughtful, strategic, incremental political reforms that were supported by California Forward and many other organizations. Those reforms are now enabling lawmakers to solve problems (Exhibit A: Prop 1) and even take the next step on fiscal reforms (Exhibit B: Prop 2).


John Guenther

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