Big changes are coming to the Capitol

The Sacramento Bee, 10/23/11.

by Dan Morain

In the coming days, a billionaire philanthropist, a think tank funded by wealthy foundations, and all sorts of political leaders and interest groups will unveil their prescriptions for restoring our ailing state.

They’ll offer big reforms to fix California’s perennially out-of-whack budget and pension, taxation and criminal justice systems. All of it will be poll-tested, focus-grouped and aimed for next November’s ballot.

But here’s a thought: What if California already is on the path toward change, only it’s taking time to take hold?

The new top-two primary system and the once-a-decade redistricting, with lines fairly drawn by the new California Redistricting Commission, could alter that most tattered and despised of institutions – the Legislature – for the better.

Maybe some adults can get elected, who aren’t quite as rigid as the current group. Turnover in the Legislature will be high, perhaps 32 seats or more in the 80-seat Assembly, and maybe one-fourth in the 40-seat Senate.

“The action is going to be in the legislative races. It’s an overstatement to call it the only game in town, but it is the big kahuna,” campaign consultant Marty Wilson told me.

The California Chamber of Commerce has hired Wilson to oversee its election effort. Wilson, who ran Carly Fiorina’s U.S. Senate campaign last year, said he intends to support Democrats and Republicans, but not ideologues.

Just as organized labor leaders intend to support Republicans who won’t be tied to the GOP’s current orthodoxy of voting against all taxes, Wilson intends to back moderate Democrats. Wilson noted that the chamber has supported some tax hikes in the past, and is not insisting on a no-tax pledge.

The top-two primary system probably will add to the cost of legislative campaigns. Instead of having safe Republican or Democratic seats in which outcomes are determined in primaries, voters in some districts will nominate two competitive candidates, who will face one another in costly fall campaigns.

Even so, the millions spent on the most pricey legislative campaigns will be a pittance compared with the tens of millions that are spent on hard-fought initiative campaigns.

David Crane, a wealthy investor, friend and adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is creating a political action committee specifically to sway a few legislative races.

His partners include two wealthy friends: Ron Conway, an angel investor who handled some of Schwarzenegger’s investments, and Gregory B. Penner, a Stanford graduate and investor who married Carrie Walton, she of the Wal-Mart fortune. Penner sits on Wal-Mart’s board of directors.

Crane has been warning for years about the costs of public-employee pension systems, and is seeking candidates who will be committed to “transparency, and honest accounting and budgeting.”

As Crane sees it, a single shrewd lawmaker can have more direct impact on the lives of Californians than any member of Congress. He cited former Sen. Abel Maldonado, who in 2009 conditioned his vote for the budget and tax increases on legislative acquiescence to placing the top-two primary system on the ballot.

The goal of that measure was to dramatically alter the Legislature by leading to the election of more centrists.

“There will be more accountability to the general election voters. We haven’t had that in 10 years,” said Bill Hauck, who until recently headed the California Business Roundtable and advocated the top-two primary.

Californians always will be asked to vote on ballot measures. Consultants make too much money off them to stop now. Next year will be no different.

Billionaire Nicholas Berggruen and his Think Long committee of deep thinkers have been studying what ails the state for a year, and are planning for ballot measures that almost certainly will involve taxes.

In the coming days, California Forward, funded by the Irvine Foundation and others, is expected to release its concepts for restructuring government. There will be education-related measures. Gov. Jerry Brown is working on fixes to the pension system.

County governments are preparing a measure to secure a source of money for criminal justice.

If half of the proposals make it onto next year’s ballot, the election will be huge. But we have seen more than one Year of Reform. Voters invariably are skeptical. One problem is that reform is in the eye of the reformer.

But what if the sweeping change contemplated by big thinkers already is under way? Maybe California is, in fact, governable. Perhaps the problem isn’t the broken system but a collective unwillingness by legislators to make hard decisions.

What would happen if a new group of legislators gets elected who reject gimmicky no-tax pledges pushed by the right, and refuse to vote in lock-step with interest groups from the left? That would be true reform.

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