Anyone who says there was no effect from political rule changes California used for the first time last year just hasn’t been watching. These included “top two” primary elections, slightly revised term limits and use of election districts drawn by nonpartisan nonpoliticians.
Those changes had enormous impact this year on some of the most important issues taken up by state legislators — making it obvious some similar changes could be useful at the federal level.
The main impact of the changes has been restoration of respectability to the word “compromise.”
For decades before the rule changes, behavior patterns in Sacramento were much like those so paralyzing today in Congress: almost mindless adherence to the party line of whichever party lawmakers belong to and blind unwillingness even to listen to the reasoning of the other side.
But the new rules, including a term limit change allowing legislators to serve 12 total years, whether in one house or both, has lessened the need for new lawmakers to start looking for their next jobs almost as soon as they’re elected. So there’s less pressure for rookies to please party leaders who control money they could use if and when they seek to move up the political ladder.
Meanwhile, top two frees some politicians from the fear of extremists within their own parties, who often controlled the old Democratic and Republican primaries.
And some of the new districts are more competitive than the old gerrymandered ones, making moderation more attractive.
These were some of the reasons why compromise ruled in the legislative session just ended. Democrats have overwhelming majorities in both the state Assembly and Senate, so much of the give and take was between the extreme left and moderates within the party, but on some issues, even the small minority of Republican legislators got involved.
The best example was prison reform, where Bob Huff of Diamond Bar and Connie Conway of Tulare, GOP leaders in the Senate and Assembly, joined Democratic leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown in announcing a compromise that will encourage rehabilitation efforts while assuring that no current prison inmates are released earlier than normal.
Because of a federal court order, the state must decrease prison populations to no more than 137.5 percent of design capacity by the end of this year. This threatened to force a few thousand early releases.
Some Republicans wanted to solve the problem by building more prisons. Many Democrats, led by Senate President Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, wanted to place thousands of inmates into rehab. But all political sides agreed to ask the judges to amend their order and allow the state more time to reduce the number of prisoners by expanding rehab programs that do well in preventing recidivism of drug- and alcohol-related crimes.
Should the judges insist on their current deadline, the deal would see the state rent space in out-of-state prisons and county jails while the rehab plan ramps up.
That gets in both the main elements of Brown’s plan for mainly renting more space — which Republicans liked — and Steinberg’s rehab-centered ideas. It’s a classic compromise.
That’s also what happened on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, the drilling method in which water and chemicals are inserted in shale formations to loosen oil and natural gas. Fearing ground water pollution, environmental activists demanded a moratorium on fracking, which could become an economic bonanza, while the oil industry wanted the old system of loose or no regulation.
The new compromise law will force permits for the first time, and require disclosure of exactly what chemicals are used, plus continuous monitoring of ground water quality.
“The last-minute changes undercut critical safety measures,” griped the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This was a good bill gone bad.” But it’s still a lot more regulation than California has had.
There was compromise, too, on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, where some sought regular driver’s licenses for all. Instead, the undocumented can soon get licenses, but ones with special watermarks and notations not permitting them to be used to prove they can legally be employed. That’s half a loaf for immigrant advocates, but a lot more than the nothing they’ve gotten in previous years.
Brown rightfully gets a lot of credit for the atmosphere of moderation that produced these compromises. But so should the rule changes, without which it’s likely at least some of these deals would not have been done.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at [email protected]