If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature get anything else done this year, it most likely will be -- and should be -- political redistricting reform.
Redistricting reform is the path to logical term-limit flexibility. And both are badly needed in Sacramento, as the recent budget fiasco showed.
They may have reflected their gerrymandered, largely conservative districts in blocking budget passage for a month. But the Capitol could benefit from a more pragmatic, moderate strain of lawmaker.
Legislators particularly abused the power to shape their own districts in 2001 when Democrats and Republicans conspired to draw legislative and congressional lines that protected the party status quo. In the last three elections, only four seats have changed parties in 495 races.
"There was more turnover in the Hapsburg monarchy," Schwarzenegger likes to say.
An independent redistricting, he argued at an L.A. news conference last week, would make seats more competitive and "guarantee that our elected leaders are more responsive to the voters."
"Some people, of course," he continued, "don't like competition because that means you have to work much harder. And also they don't like the thought of maybe losing."
Democrats long have resisted turning redistricting over to an independent commission. That's understandable, since they've been the party in power for the last five post-census redrawings of districts.
But for strategic reasons involving term limits, Democrats now are reluctantly accepting the notion of surrendering their redistricting power. Publicly, they're pointing to the Senate GOP's budget blockade as a rationale.
"This is an example of why we need to reevaluate the way district boundaries are drawn -- so they don't benefit the extremists in both parties," Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) told reporters last week. "I want [legislators] whose points of view are reflective of all California. And I think objective, nonpartisan redistricting that's one step removed from the Legislature might get us there."
That's all true. But Nuñez's primary motivation is to secure bipartisan -- mainly Schwarzenegger's -- support for term-limit flexibility.
A Nuñez-backed initiative that has qualified for the Feb. 5 ballot would reduce the total years anyone could spend in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but allow the entire time to be served in one house. Currently, there's a six-year limit in the Assembly and eight-year cap in the Senate.
The change would benefit the public by allowing each house to retain experienced members and develop stronger leaders. Plus, it would reduce the distractive musical-chairs games that lawmakers play to position themselves for their next elective office.
But the term-limits change also would benefit many current legislators, including Nuñez, who otherwise would be booted next year.
It's in both Democratic and Republican interests to pass a redistricting measure and place it on the Feb. 5 ballot. That's the only way Schwarzenegger will endorse the term-limits initiative. A successful redistricting overhaul would allow him to salvage some piece of his failed 2005 "reform" package that tarnished his image.
"A lot of things are trade-offs," the governor told reporters. "Whatever it takes."
Last month, the stars seemed aligned for healthcare reform. But that was before the budget brawl. Now the legislative mood is morose. There's bitterness and mistrust. And everybody is far apart on healthcare.
It's unlikely the politicians can fashion a comprehensive plan before the Legislature shuts down for the year in three weeks. The governor could call the lawmakers back into special session, but that rarely works. Legislators usually just roll their eyes and yawn.