California Ushers In a New Era of Bipartisan Plunder

The Golden State descends to a new low.


God help California from its current crop of wealthy "moderates," who believe that the only thing that will save our state is a dose of higher taxes. They continue to embrace electoral rule changes that ultimately will undermine the GOP's supposedly hard line on tax hikes.

June 5 was the first election that used the "top two" primary system, a form of open primary designed specifically to elect more candidates who resemble former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who helped advance the idea. He was one of least effective and least principled Republicans to attain higher office in recent years, so let this serve as a warning about what is to come.

The election also took place under new districts drawn under a supposedly apolitical redistricting system.

After the smoke cleared, we find these results: Top two has obliterated minor parties, and assured that the ideas they bring in the general election, will not get a fair hearing. In many legislative races, the general election will pit two members of the party against each other, which is part of the system's design. Top two is supposed to promote greater choice, but voters will have fewer choices.

Top two is supposed to reduce the influence of big money, but record amounts were spent in the primary cycle. It will only increase the power of moneyed interests. Now candidates will need to run in two open, general elections, rather than in a narrow primary and then in a general, in what typically is a safe seat. That takes a lot more money to win than it did before. Who do you think will provide it?

Redistricting was supposed to take the politics out of politics, but media reports proved that Republicans improperly vetted the redistricting commission members, allowing on the panel agenda-driven lefties.

Between the two "reforms," it's clear what will happen: Democrats are likely to gain a rock-solid two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, where they can then have the power to raise taxes at will. Another "moderate" reform has also gone into effect—the elimination of the two-thirds vote requirement to pass state budgets. We can already see what has happened as a result of that change. In this cycle, Republicans don't have a say in the process, because Democrats no longer need to rely on their votes to pass their budgets.

I'm not sure how giving only one party and its most extreme elements unchecked power to pass budgets is in any way a moderate idea.

Fortunately, these political reformers were unsuccessful in their attempt to create a constitutional convention that would have enabled the liberals who dominate our political process to cast aside many of the taxpayer protections in the state constitution. But some of them are eager to see the initiative, recall, and referendum process hobbled, so average folks are more dependent than ever on the Legislature.

These good-government types argue that Democrats and Republicans are too partisan (true), that liberals are too focused on insanity such as banning foie gras and imposing regulations on tanning salons (also true), and that conservatives are too focused on social issues such as gay marriage (yet again, true). But their solutions miss the mark by more than a country mile.

Everyone knows the political system in our state Capitol is broken, but their naivete and failure to consider the law of unintended consequences is infuriating.

The problem isn't that political parties fight with each other. The problem is that one party in particular is in control of the Legislature and statewide constitutional offices, and that this party is controlled by the public-sector unions. Note how infrequently these moderate reformers point to the union problem. They figure we can reform the state without taking on the main obstacle to reform.

In a typical newspaper editorial in favor of Proposition 14, which in 2010 created the top-two primary system, the Marin Independent Journal opined: "Proposition 14 could help bring cooperation and collaborative problem solving back to Sacramento." As silly as partisan displays can be, I much prefer a world of political debate, where two parties hold each other accountable than a world where few of the political actors have any governing principles, and instead work together in a cooperative way to divvy up the spoils provided by taxpayers. The idea that Sacramento will be overtaken by a bipartisan reform spirit is too funny for words.

The ostensible goal of these reforms sound sounds sincere, but I suspect that most of their advocates have a darker agenda. They know the proposals will help Democrats pick up either enough seats or enough wobbly Republicans to raise taxes. Once that big battle over taxes is over, there will no longer be a stumbling block to the infrastructure-spending and other programs these business interests support.

The joke will be on them, of course. They envision a world where they are in the backrooms, diverting tax loot toward the infrastructure projects they desperately want. But instead the unions will control those backrooms just as they do now. These businesses—the ones who sell the rope to the hangman—will soon find their necks in a tightening noose. Sure, they will get their occasional privileges, but the business climate around them will continue to decline.

Ultimately, there will be fewer principled legislators to stand up against tax hikes and regulations just because they are wrong. Fewer legislators will focus on creating a better climate for all businesses and not just the favored few. Fewer legislators will call for measures to reform government and stretch tax dollars rather than finding more revenue.

I prefer a battle that at least occasionally revolves around an idea rather than an era of bipartisanship where both parties quietly plunder the rest of us.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.