California’s Great Redistricting Mirage
By Peter Schrag
By the time you read this, California’s independent and presumably non-partisan redistricting commission may have turned its “preliminary final maps” into what it hopes will be its final final maps (maybe).
That means that the howling, which has been under way ever since the commissioners and their staff were first chosen, will get a little more strident and the threats of lawsuits louder.
There’ll be still more speculation about intra-party cannibalism: which politician will move into which other politician’s district. Will Dan Lungren muscle into Tom McClintock’s district? It’s entertaining for the junkies, but does anyone else really care?
By the classic political law that the smaller the prize, the nastier the fight, all that was probably predictable from the day in 2008 that California’s goo-goos and allied reformers managed to pass Proposition 11, shifting the power to reapportion the state’s Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts from the legislature to the commission. A subsequent ballot measure added congressional districts to the commission’s jurisdiction.
For liberals, and a lot of good government types, the hope was always that the new system would increase the number of competitive districts, reduce partisanship, and make Sacramento a friendlier place.
Add Proposition 14, the top-two open primary ballot measure passed in June 2010, and the reformers’ hopes become even brighter. Under its terms, beginning next year, voters of any party may choose candidates of any party in the primary. The top finishers, again regardless of party, will compete in the general election. How we love non-political politics.
Given that Sacramento Democrats and Republicans can no longer collude in decennial gerrymandering to create safe districts for their respective parties, it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be a few more competitive districts.
But don’t expect too much. Another classic political law warns of the unintended consequences of even the brightest reforms. Given the way that Californians have segregated themselves residentially, and since both Proposition 11 and federal law require that districts be drawn as much as possible to preserve community integrity, meaning social and economic segregation, our political demographics will still produce a majority of districts dominated by voters of one party or another.
But maybe the biggest frustrated expectation in this set of political reforms could be the hope of the left that Democrats may at last get the two or three additional seats in each house to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes without Republican votes.
Democrats may get the seats, but don’t count on the votes. The Republican minority, in rigidly blocking any road to tax increases or, as this year, even a ballot measure giving voters a chance to extend the expiring taxes that the legislature itself approved in prior years, also protected Democrats from the voter backlash against the tax increases that they might have voted for. California Democrats have also voted for corporate tax loopholes.
If any new competitive districts produce those marginal Democrats, how eager will they be to vote for boosts in the vehicle license fee, the sales tax, or the gas tax? How willing would Gov. Jerry Brown be to sign such tax increases? In his last terms as governor his austere heart was always in thinking small for an era of limits. He stiffed the universities and never trusted big institutions.
California’s debt/deficit/budget problem – the nation’s problem – is not primarily structural; it’s not just the two thirds majorities needed to approve tax increases; it’s not just the Senate filibuster.
It’s cultural. We want a rich menu of public goods but don’t want to pay for them. Most of us, all hard numbers to the contrary notwithstanding, are sure we’re terribly overtaxed. Many of us aren’t sure that it’s our state (country) anymore and we’re damned if we’ll pay another cent in taxes for the education, health care and welfare of those illegal immigrants, or maybe any immigrants at all.
Maybe the new districts will generate some moderation, maybe even some leadership willing to change that culture. Certainly the coming months will see a lot of pre-occupation with the political, legal and ethnic shakeout that the new maps will produce.
But don’t count on any fundamental political revolution. During the past thirty-plus years the tax revolt and the hyper-distrust of government that Proposition 13 set in motion has hardened into popular orthodoxy. The nation began with a tax revolt; suspicion of government was always in our genes. It may take thirty years to change it – or maybe it will never change.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.