A Time for Bipartisan Deals
August 24, 2015 by Jim Mayer
With three weeks left in this year's legislative session, California has entered the "Top Two" season.
With the Capitol in the twilight of its annual calendar, a number of seminal bills requiring compromise – especially those requiring bipartisan votes – will come to the floors in the Assembly and the Senate.
Most notably this year will be a deal to raise revenue – and hopefully enact some performance and accountability assurances – to literally fill millions of potholes on the state's roadways.
Last year's "Top Two" season produced the historic $7.5 billion water bond. Democrats supported more money for water storage than environmentalists would have liked, and Republicans supported more public debt than the tea party would have liked.
The bond measure didn't make it rain, nor will it fund all of the needed projects. But a principled compromise among lawmakers helped to firm up support among voters – and the result was a rainbow compared the scorched earth strategies favored by partisan purists.
So, in a rare moment where "inside baseball" will actually impact every single Californian, we will see if the new political climate change yields a principled compromise.
"Top Two" is the moniker for the political reform that has been in place for two election cycles and allows all voters to vote for all candidates in the primary election. The top two vote-getters regardless of party are on the November ballot.
By empowering voters, the new rules also empower candidates and incumbents to act more independent of party bosses and special interests whose money and organizing machines can control what lawmakers say and do – especially when a bill is on the floor for a vote.
California's newest state Senator, Steve Glazer from Contra Costa County, told a gathering convened last week by California Forward and the Independent Voter Project that he would not have run for the Senate nor would he have won if it were not for Top Two.
Political climate change deniers dispute Glazer's assessment. But even if the conservative Democrat could have won a primary that included two liberal, smart, well-respected Assemblywomen --one backed by the party and public labor--and then prevailed in the November election against a Republican, the decision to run required only a single vote – Glazer's.
Put most concisely, Glazer told the gathering that “Top Two” enables lawmakers to represent their constituents and act with conviction. In other words, he said, the reform makes it more possible for “a Democrat to say ‘No’ and a Republican to say ‘Yes.’”
Unpacking his view, Glazer said the new political rules enable and encourage lawmakers to take six actions that he believes will result in a stronger democracy and better policy, as paraphrased below:
1. Build a base of real people (rather than interest groups).
By building a base as a community activist and local elected official, Glazer said he can be independent of special interest groups and faithfully represent his district.
2. Define and distribute a political philosophy.
Glazer has established 10 principals that communicate how he tries to make decisions to voters, colleagues and interest groups.
3. Reject partisan support for nonpartisan local offices.
Glazer said the parties use city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors as "farm teams," distorting the purpose of the constitutional requirement that local races and offices be "nonpartisan."
4. Be a problem solver.
Don't be righteous, he warned. Righteousness starts wars.
5. Stop filling out the secret special interest questionnaires.
Candidates are given the questionnaires by powerful organizations to determine who they will endorse, and more importantly to secure commitments from candidates that they will hold firm on priority issues. These priority issues, ironically, are precisely where principled compromises – such as taxes or regulatory reforms – could really make a difference on issues like housing, education and job creation. Glazer said he received 34 questionnaires during his Senate candidacy.
6. Stand up for what you believe in.
Like every courageous leader before him, Glazer said it is better to be defeated and ostracized than to be silent and go along on important issues.
Also last week, Glazer was among a cadre of bipartisan lawmakers who stood on the steps of the Capitol to announce a bill that would modify the budget reserve cap on local school districts that the Legislature enacted last year. The cap was a classic backroom deal cut with the teachers union to win its acquiesce on a measure to create a larger state budget reserve. The cap would force school districts to put more money on the bargaining table for salaries.
SB 799 (Hill, D-San Mateo), supported by the California School Boards Association, would allow the districts to keep up to the minimum reserve recommended by professional financial managers – from the about 12 days of operating costs under last year's power play to 60 days – hardly austere, but an improvement.
The bill only requires a simple majority vote, which in this case means Democratic support, including the Governor's. Glazer said the Democratic support expressed for the bill on the Capitol steps was the result of "top two."
In the twilight of the session we will see if enough Democrats are willing to say "No" to a powerful interest group, and support a measure backed by their nonpartisan local school boards. And we will see if Republicans are willing to say "Yes" to transportation-related taxes.
For everything there is a season, and a time for bipartisan agreement under the dome.