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.