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Reform: The Election’s Upside

— California has elected a new governor, which is to say it’s elected an old governor. Jerry Brown’s victory illustrates the dearth of new leaders in a state whose political system grinds people down. You’d have to be crazy to want to govern this place! That is, unless you’re a former chief executive with an outsized ego and nothing better to do.

That pretty well describes both major party candidates who ran for governor this year.

But one area where voters have made a positive difference is in reform. I’m talking about the passage of Proposition 20 and Proposition 25.

Prop. 20 hands the redistricting of Congressional districts over to a citizen’s commission. That’ll take the power of drawing district lines away from the State Legislature. Two years ago, California voters did that for state elective offices. This year, in fact, voters rejected an attempt to undo that redistricting reform by voting down Proposition 27.

The major parties hate redistricting reform because it denies them the ability to draw safe districts that protect the party faithful. The old system created districts that are hard-core Republican or Democrat… districts that foster gridlock and fail to represent the political middle.

Sacramento political operative Leo McElroy told me redistricting reform may be the one thing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger can cite as his legacy of accomplishment. God knows he never improved the budget process.

The most important reform passed in California in November, 2010 is Proposition 25, which allows the Legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote. Majority rule on the budget means it will be a lot easier to pass. You still need a super-majority to pass a tax hike, thanks to Prop. 13. But the days of holding up the budget process with endless gridlock in the Legislature appear to be over.

So Proposition 25 is great for Democrats and it sucks for Republicans, right? That’s only true if the GOP is satisfied to be the permanent minority in California. If that’s the case, it’s their choice. But I’m hoping the reality of Prop. 25 will force Republicans to become more mainstream and fight for that political middle.

Meanwhile, majority rule will force Democrats to be accountable… to pass a budget and accept the credit or the blame for it.

Once we get beyond Props 20 and 25, the reformist zeal of voters becomes less clear. Californians also passed Proposition 26, which redefines some fees as taxes and requires a two-thirds vote to pass them. Naturally, the oil companies consider this reform because they don’t like paying fees for environmental cleanup. They say those are taxes and they should be called taxes. But Proposition 26 doesn’t make governing in Sacramento any easier.

And then there’s San Diego’s Proposition D. It was a brave attempt to raise money to sustain city services through a sales tax increase, while also reforming municipal finances. But the current economic malaise and the general distrust of local government stopped it. We’ll see if voters begin to trust San Diego politicians more when and if the city drastically cuts cops, firefighters and library hours, as they’ve promised to do.

We all wish for wise, competent leaders to run our cities and our states. But our political system doesn’t always provide them. More often than not our politicians are middling. But democracy is a system that is supposed to work even when our politicians are mediocre and lack sterling characters. Reforming the system is what California needs. It matters a lot more than who is in the Governor’s office.

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