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California forward launches reform effort

A bipartisan group of former lawmakers and officials kicked off a new reform organization called California Forward on Wednesday with an event at the downtown Tsakopoulos Library Galleria. The group will take aim at the political process in California, with long-term goals of bringing less partisan legislators to Sacramento and fixing a flawed budget process.

"People are frustrated," said Thomas McKernan, CEO of the Automobile Club of California and co-chair of the new organization. "They don't know what needs to change, but they know something needs to change."

California Forward is registered as a nonprofit 501(c)(3). It is starting out with $15.9 million in operating funds donated by the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the California Endowment, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. There will also be a related lobbying arm, a 501(c)(4) known as the California Forward Action Fund. Irvine Foundation CEO James Canales said the Action Fund would rely on a different set of donors.

The new group will help promote the California Voters First Act. This is an initiative to create a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission with five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents. A pool of experts would be formed to redraw districts to better fit California's geography, with an eye toward creating less partisan districts. The effort started in October with an agreement between Common Cause, the AARP and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and members are currently gathering signatures with the goal of getting on the November ballot.

The redistricting effort would allow legislators to "govern from the center, rather than from the extremes," said former Assemblyman Fred Keeley, a member of California Forward's leadership council. "California is a Democratic state, but that doesn't mean Democrats should control every issue all the time."

Next on the agenda would likely be the state budget process. Keeley, who was heavily involved in budget negotiations during his time the Legislature, said 86 percent of the state budget is promised out before the governor and the legislature get their hands on it. Much of this spending was guaranteed in a piecemeal fashion via the initiative process.

Other members of the group's leadership council include former state Finance Director Tom Campbell; former Business, Transportation and Housing Director Sunne Wright McPeak; and former GOP Sen. Charles Poochigian.

By taking aim at some of the most entrenched aspects of California's government, the group's leaders admitted they were likely to run into serious resistance. As members of the press quickly pointed out during the question-and-answer period, the elephant in the room is the two-thirds voting requirement to approve new taxes or pass a budget.

Because Democrats must pick up two Republican votes in the Senate and six in the Assembly to pass new taxes or a budget, the two-thirds requirement is one of the cornerstones of the GOP's power as a minority party in the state. Democratic party leaders have said they view the next two election cycles as an opportunity to pick off the seats they need to get to get a two-thirds majority in both houses.

When asked if his group would look at an initiative or another effort to reduce the two-thirds vote requirement, California Forward co-chair Leon Panetta said, "All of us made the decision that everything is on the table."

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