Moderate Reforms Don't Prevent Immoderate Results

It will take radical measures to save California from the recklessness of its officials.


For years, California reformers — especially those of a moderate political stripe — have pushed for changes to the political system that would lead to a more responsive and less ideological Legislature.

Although the state never called a new constitutional convention as some of these folks wanted, the state's voters passed key measures on the reformist agenda. The legislative session that ended around midnight Thursday offers a good chance to judge the initial effectiveness of these reforms.

In 2008, voters approved the Voters First Act, which put redistricting in the hands of a citizens' commission. In June 2010, voters replaced party primaries with a system by which the top-two candidates from either party move ahead to the general election. In November 2010, voters approved a simple-majority budget process.

By taking the politicians out of map-drawing, redistricting was supposed to result in more competitive districts that would elect more practical politicians from both parties. The top-two primary eliminated the party-controlled closed primary system whereby candidates got elected by appealing to base voters. The goal was to break the political grip of the parties.

The simple-majority budget was supposed to lead to more thoughtful budget outcomes given that the minority party, i.e., the Republicans, would no longer have the power to obstruct budgets as they did when a supermajority vote was required for budget passage.

Yet it's hard to view the just-completed session as a triumph of moderation. In past years, Republicans rarely won, but they put the brakes on liberal priorities. This year, they've been shoved to the side, reduced to giving speeches about the Federalist Papers as Democrats, who also control every constitutional office, flexed their muscle.

In the supermajority-vote days, the ending session was a nightmare as everyone fought to pass a hobbled-together budget. This time, the budget passed early, but with no real input from the GOP caucus.

Legislators had more time to deal with substantive issues. The moderate reformers never considered the unintended consequence of a less-bridled Democratic majority spending so much time on its big-ticket priorities.

The Democratic leadership was almost giddy in its ability to govern with few barriers, and by its goal of passing ground-breaking laws that pull the nation toward the Left Coast.

Legislators passed controversial ideas that deal with sexuality (the transgender bathroom law), land use (pushing new construction into "infill" areas), toughest-in-the-nation gun-controls, immigration (driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants), protecting public employees from accountability, and providing mandates on private businesses (a minimum wage boost). Legislators even earned a rebuke from the liberal Obama administration for a bill that eliminates some student testing.

"None of these reforms had their intended effect," said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the GOP-oriented Flashreport. "Redistricting reform has led us only to more Democratic seats. The top-two primary has done nothing to moderate the Democrats … . The majority-vote budget has done nothing to change the fact that it's a document written in the office of a labor union." Reformists, he said, took the easy way out by investing in election-related tweaks rather than trying to elect legislators who would embrace a more conservative agenda.

Of course, there are many reasons for the state's drift. Democrats surged during the last Obama election. California Republicans have been imploding for years. The latest session didn't go nearly as far to the left as it could have gone, especially given Gov. Jerry Brown's early kibosh on talk of additional tax increases.

Others dispute my thesis. Steve Peace, the former San Diego legislator and co-chairman of the group that authored top-two, told me this session was "dramatically more moderate than any Legislature in the last 30 years." The new primary, he said, slowed a more leftward trajectory. He said it takes time to change a system that has been in place for so long.

Political consultant Grant Gillham said that Democrats from places such as the Central Valley are still well poised to moderate the extremes.

Maybe I spent too much time this session listening to legislators pontificate, but I saw an onslaught of union-backed and other liberal priorities and little pushback. If this is moderation, reformers need some other ideas — and soon.

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  1. Everybody knows the Rethuglicans still stop the Democrats in Cali at every turn.

    1. Not any more! Good luck with unbridled spending and regulation. Of course, Republicans are no saints either as they are the architects of some preposterous government bloat too.

  2. There is only one solution: quit claim California back to Mexico.

    1. They don't want to have to foot the bill for it.

      1. Well, maybe we could talk North Korea or Iran into it.

      2. How much, exactly, is California costing the rest of the nation?

        1. I believe California is actually sending more to the Federal government than they are getting back.

          1. Bull crap! Every state gets far more back than it actually contributes hence the huge debt and deficit spending.

            One of my favorite quotes comes from Great Britain and nearly half a century ago. The other quote is from over 200 years ago.

            They were true when stated, they are true now and will be true always.

            "We contend that for a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle."

            Winston Churchill (1874?1965)

            And . . .

            "A government big enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have."

            Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

  3. These "reforms" were mostly BS that were primarily focused around squashing third parties rather than any concession to the persecuted Republicans. Anybody with any sense could see that these changes favored the Democrats more than they did the Republicans, but they kept the Republicans from slipping off the map entirely.

    The California Republican party is a very pathetic thing. I don't think people in other parts of the country realize how extremely deep the chasm is in California between religious conservatives and libertarians.

    Historically, it's the whackos who came West, for obvious reasons. The government chased them here and subjected them, but here is where I would argue you have both the most extreme libertarians and most uber-insane tele-preachers you care to scrounge up.

    Milder forms of these two camps can be made to see eye-to-eye on certain things, but in California these two groups aren't on the same page about much of anything.

    I think that Pelosi and Feinstein, however, have so lost touch with the CA left in their quests for national recognition that they're going to start having troubles. As always, though, the biggest question mark is, now that third parties have been effectively excluded from CA elections, can the Republicans come up with candidates who aren't on leave from mental health facilities?

    Experience says, "unlikely."

    1. You're right... It was interesting how none of these "reforms" actually provided a method for third-parties to enter the Legislature; in fact, they probably made it HARDER for third-parties to elect anybody ever again in California as most voters don't pay attention to primaries (only partisans do so), effectively preventing a third-party candidate, even one with a compelling message, from making it through to the general.

      1. It seems like it's affected the smaller parties internally, as well. I remember during the grand free-for-all after the Gray Davis recall when they had something like a six-way debate (in which Schwarzeneggar came across as far and away the dumbest guy in the room), the Libertarian candidate and the Green Candidate agreed much more than they disagreed, and they both turned out surpisingly high numbers in the election.

        Now, try as I might I can't tell the difference between the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party - they're both the "we want our pie to hang from the sky magically and we want it NOW" parties. The CA Libertarian Party, on the other hand, really doesn't seem like a Party at all, just a party. When an election comes around, someone at the party is shoved out the front door and says "um, hey, I, uh, I guess I'm gonna run for something. I won't have to talk to people though, right?"

  4. Sometimes it seems to me that Pelosi and Feinstein are actually right-wing by California standards.

    1. By California standards not so much, but by Bay Area standards absolutely. This is what people outside CA don't understand about people like Pelosi, Feinstein, Brown, and Newsome. These people are very much not socialists, but in fact very cynical businesspeople, who are trying to make it politically in an area that probably leans farther left than any other region in the country.

      When the likes of Pelosi, Newsome, and Feinstein win elections, all of the left-wingers I know consider it a defeat at the hands of Conservativism. Often in the Bay Area elections are between a Democrat and someone even farther left. Republicans aren't even really a blip, and rightfully so for the reasons noted above (i.e. CA Republicans are very often even more insane than CA Democrats).

  5. This article is spot on. The tyranny of the majority has never been so evident as now. Farmers are being regulated out of business and generations old family farms are now rarer than hens teeth. Being born and raised here, I must concede that they have won and we have lost. Our only hope is that through their legislative folly and hunger for one party rule, the utter collapse that will surely follow may result in a new shift in power that will rise from the ashes. The only question is what will rise from the ashes: An even more oppressive new and improved pure socialist state or will the people see the lies and vote for leaders that represent the morality of a free market economy and know the evil lies of socialist policy that destroyed the state? My guess is that they will always vote to protect their entitlements as they are now the majority voters. Come to think of it, common sense supports a pessimistic outlook supporting equal poverty for everyone. There is no hope.

    1. It will oscillate around the edge of instability, like virtual particles at the event horizon. Just go crazy enough to look like political suicide, then delve back into sanity just enough to forestall real reform.

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  7. I would say that I feel sorry for CA but I'm living the frozen CA dream here in MN. Lots and lots of useful idiots here in flyover country.

    1. Climate is my weakness. I'll endure almost any tyranny for 65 degree winters and 85 degree summers with almost always under 20% humidity.

  8. I told everyone I knew that the Top-Two proposition would effectively kill third parties in this state, and no one would listen. I hate to see my most depressing forecasts come to fruition.

  9. I remember that Cindy Sheehan ran against Pelosi and got creamed. If the Bay Area was as leftist as it is stereotyped to be, how could that have happened?

    1. Everyone I know is convinced that the elections are rigged in favor of "conservative" candidates like Pelosi, who they believe to be better funded by local business interests.

      I also strongly suspect that a lot of SF Republicans might vote for Pelosi over Sheehan, knowing that the Republican is a wasted vote.

      There's also the fact that Sheehan is an idiot, and some people do actually listen.

  10. Anyone heard of or remember John G. Schmitz? He was a representative in the early 1970s, a transplant from Milwaukee who had his moment of fame for criticizing Nixon's visit to China. Even Orange County isn't what it used to be.

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  12. Now we can see socialism at its worst.

    We will watch crime explode as people are denied the right to own guns to protect themselves from those who care not for the law. 99% of gun crime is committed by the criminal 5% of the populace. The reason that mass shootings (very rare events with 500 out of 500,000+ murders in 30 years) occur at schools and movie theaters is that the gunmen know there are no guns. Now, California will be gun-free except, of course, for the criminals.

    Now we'll what the Democrats can do to totally destroy the economy and use that example to turn the tide of unbridled government that is the current future of the United States.

    I take no glee in the coming destruction of the California government but the voters asked for it and they'll get what they deserve for being so careless. 5 more years and California is done.

    I am happy that it will only need to happen in one state. Texas and states with more fiscally conservative governments will rise while California implodes. Detroit was the warning unheeded. Maybe this will wake everyone up to reign in the strong central governments in states and Washington.

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