Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 18, 2007

Last chance to kill a bad bill, save a good one

Belated wishes for a happy Constitution Day.

You probably didn’t know it, but yesterday was a federal holiday. Without a day off work or school, most people don’t realize that Sept. 17 is Constitution Day.

That’s too bad, because the Constitution is America’s most important document, and it deserves a celebration commensurate with that status.

After all, the Constitution defines our system of government – including the key concept of three coequal federal branches – and our liberties. Both are being weakened by forces within our country and outside it.

I frequently wonder: If we celebrated the Constitution more passionately and understood it more intimately, would we so willingly tolerate dangerous compromises to the values enshrined in our nation’s most important document?

***

The California legislature finished this year’s legislative session last week. Besides being late (again) with the state budget, this year’s session produced two major disappointments.

Topping my disappointment list is the legislature’s failure to pass any redistricting reform legislation. Despite a promising start by Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) in the face of the extreme displeasure of powerful Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the measure ultimately wasn’t even brought to a vote.

I’m terribly disappointed by the lack of action, but not at all surprised. It’s in lawmakers’ best interest to maintain the status quo. As one wag put it, the current redistricting system allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their legislators.

State legislators want to continue to redraw state Senate, state Assembly and Congressional districts after each census. The gerrymandered districts they dream up are not designed to produce districts with shared interests, but safe seats for incumbents.

The fractured state Senate, state Assembly and federal House of Representatives districts in South County illustrate that fact. So does the fact that, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “In 2004, not a single one of the 153 [California] congressional and legislative seats up for election changed party hands. In 2006, just one did when GOP Rep. Richard Pombo lost his … seat to Democrat Jerry McNerney.”

Redistricting reform won’t come through legislative action because a majority of legislators fail to prioritize their country, their state and their constituents more highly than they prioritize themselves. It will have to happen through a voter initiative.

And, while voters will have a chance in February to alter term limits, they won’t have a chance to fix the current redistricting mess. I don’t like term limits. But I won’t vote to change, extend or eliminate term limits until redistricting is reformed.

Another disappointment was that the legislature quietly passed a bad bill that will allow the Valley Transportation Authority – no other agencies – to place 1/8-cent increment sales tax measures on the ballot. SB 264, “Transactions and use taxes: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority,” was sponsored by state Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose).

I’ve written about my dislike for this bill in the past. I urged my Assemblyman and state Senator to vote against it. My Assembly representative, John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), voted to approve this legislation, and my state Senator, Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), voted against it. SB 264 was approved by both houses and it now sits on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.

Now opponents’ only hope is to convince Schwarzenegger to veto this lousy legislation. He must act by Oct. 14.

You can send an email message using the form on the governor’s web site; call his office at 916-445-2841; fax a letter to 916-445-4633; or mail a letter to State Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA, 95814.

Tell the governor that one-of-kind legislation is a bad idea, that the VTA is a troubled agency that continues to ignore serious calls for major reform of its spending and governance by the Santa Clara County civil grand jury and the Hay Group, and that with a state audit about to begin, it’s ridiculously bad timing to enact SB 264.

I’ve already sent an email message to Schwarzenegger. Please use your voice to urge the governor to veto SB 264.

One positive outcome of this legislative session was the passage (again) of a bill, AB 43, Gender-Neutral Marriage, sponsored by Assembly member Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) to legalize same-sex marriage. Schwarzenegger is expected to veto this bill, like he did a similar bill in 2005. Please urge him to do the constitutional, fair and right thing: Sign AB 43.

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Responses

  1. Redistricting! Funny how commissioners aren’t required to know geometry, much less calculus, when their job is configuring areas of equal population. Commissions are a microcosm of the legislature, not a cure. Any commissioner knows that Orange County is more conservative than San Francisco County. Voters won’t know commissioners didn’t take advantage of that fact and many other facts to gerrymander. Even dissecting the commissioner’s brains won’t reveal their thinking. A computer is a machine that follows a series of instructions called software. The software acts only on the data it reads as input. Unlike the thinking of a commissioner, the software and its input can be published for voters to see. Other computers can verify the exactness of results.
    Politicians have strained to ignore that a computer can do redistricting. Ironically, precision gerrymandering is made possible by computers. Redistricting software is limited to research, even though gerrymandering software is more difficult since it also includes voter personal data. The difference is that demand by politicians has created a market for gerrymandering software, from which the GIS companies happily profit. Programmers aren’t volunteering to write California some redistricting software, since published software doesn’t have profit potential like proprietary software. I favor a high level language like FORTRAN. I find Visual Basic disgusting.

  2. There’s no such thing as a perfect solution for any problem. Computers, which can be used, as you note, for precision gerrymandering, are very clearly not a perfect solution to redistricting reform, any more than a panel of retired judges (Schwarzenegger’s first proposal, and one that is used successfully in several states) or the Little Hoover Commission. But clearly the system we have now is broken, due to the blatant conflict of interest built into it.

    Once we accept that there’s no perfect solution — and take that excuse away from politicians who are more than happy to use it to squelch any redistricting reform attempts — then we can settle on something that’s better than what we have now.

  3. A computer could do redistricting. So could a panel of Judges (or Mathemeticians?) The barrier is money. It takes $2 million to put an initiative on the ballot. The national Democrats have pledged $10 million to defeat a redistricting initiative. Anyone with that kind of money to spend on this is probably satisfied with the politicians already in their pocket.


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