Redistricting: Ultimate political battle looms in California

A decade ago, California’s Democrat-controlled Legislature carved up the state’s political districts to protect incumbents, Democrat and Republican, based on the census. The once-a-decade process known as redistricting, as little understood by the public as it is critical to politicians’ survival, enshrined Democratic dominance of the Capitol even as it created scattered enclaves of Republican power. The result: A hyperpartisan brew that is felt to this day in virtually every aspect of legislative life.

Next spring, the census begins again, and the changes will serve as the foundation for new political boundaries for the 2012 elections that reflect the population changes in a state of 38 million people.

But this time, there will be differences.

First, the districts of the Senate, the Assembly and the Board of Equalization – 124 districts in all – will be drawn by an independent commission, not the Legislature. The Legislature will draw only the 53 districts of California’s delegation in the House of Representatives. The members of Congress felt they would fare better at the hands of fellow politicians than at the hands of the public.

The commission, approved by voters as Proposition 11, will handle the complex, computer-driven task of drawing the districts’ boundaries. The two-house conference committee struggling to cover a $24 billion budget shortage grudgingly approved $3 million this week to finance the commission’s work. The point person for the commission is State Auditor Elaine Howle, designated by voters as the person to set up the logistics for the new commission and get the process underway. But her office, the fiscal investigators and accountants that watch the state’s spending, made it clear last week, at a meeting sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures, that it’s going to be a difficult chore.

“It’s not fair to them,” said Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, a member of the conference committee. “It’s totally outside the realm of their regular duties…. The folks she needs to do this are not on her regular payroll.”

Common Cause and others have estimated the minimum amount required for the 2010 redistricting commission to be about $4 million (the 2001 amount spent on redistricting adjusted for estimated inflation through 2010). “Having two entities — the Legislature and the commission — perform redistricting could tend to increase overall redistricting expenditures. Any increase in such redistricting costs, however, probably would not be significant.”

“If anyone can find another source of funding,” Ducheny added, “then let’s use it.”

One lawmaker, Republican Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga, suggested that Howle’s audits be curtailed to accommodate the map drawing. “We thought it might be more prudent to redirect the number of audits,” he said.

But the 10-member committee, controlled by Democrats, disagreed, and the $3 million was approved from the state’s strapped General Fund. The action drew little attention in a committee that has proposed billions of dollars worth of cuts in state spending.

“I’ve been surprised how little attention this (redistricting) has been getting,” said Doug Johnson, a redistricting specialist at the Rose Institute, a think tank at Claremont McKenna College that specializes in governance and finance. “I think there are a lot of people waiting to see how the commission will be formed. The biggest factor I see is that much of the political leadership of both parties will be termed out. And since it is the leadership that decides where the resources will go, they are not putting much into this now.”

Redistricting in California has a long, checkered and bitterly partisan history in which incumbents battle for survival and the result often winds up in court.

The 2000 battle was resolved largely by agreements between then-Senate Leader John Burton of San Francisco, a Democrat, and GOP Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. A decade earlier, Republican Pete Wilson was elected governor, in part because desperate Republicans needed him to veto Democrat-drawn districts. He did exactly that, the plans suffered legal challenges and in the end, special masters appointed by the court handled the thorny chore. Opinions differ in the Capitol, but many in both parties believe those districts were less gerrymandered and more evenly balanced than they would have been if they had been left in the hands of the Democratic majority.

Attempts to create a redistricting commission have fallen apart before, such as in 2006 when a concerted, well-financed campaign backed by the leaders of both parties led to the defeat of Proposition 77. Other efforts also have foundered, such as those calling for the redistricting decisions to be made by retired judges.

But last November, voters approved Proposition 11. Supporters, led by California Common Cause, raised $14 million for their campaign. Opponents, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the state Democratic Party and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, raised $1 million. But it was narrowly approved, 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent, a difference of less than 194,000 votes out of nearly 12 million votes cast.

The new commission, comprised of 14 members, will include five Democrats, five Republicans and four from neither party.
But here’s where it gets a little tricky: Anybody can apply to be on the commission. Howle’s office will screen the applicants for conflicts of interest and the review panel will come up with 60 registered voters from the pool of applicants viewed as the most qualified – 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans and 20 of neither party.

Legislative leaders in both houses from both parties may strike some applicants.

Howle then randomly selects eight commissioners from the remaining names — three Democrats, three Republicans and two from neither party. Those eight commissioners then select the remaining six members.

It’s complicated, and Democrats and Republicans alike wonder why the pivotal role in the process was given to Howle, a fiscal examiner of national repute, hired by the Legislature, who is far more comfortable with accounting than political gamesmanship.
But that’s how the voters wanted it.

“We had an opportunity to put forward a better proposal,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, “but we didn’t do it. This is what the people put forward. I support it.”

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