When it comes to self-interest, lawmakers aren’t ready for reform

State lawmakers proved this week that shameless self-interest is a mighty large obstacle to overcome.

That will explain the stifling inability of legislators to finally deal with redistricting and term limits — two issues that politicians in Sacramento have been wrestling with for two years and seem no closer to an answer today than they did when members of both parties decided to draw maps in 2000 to protect the status quo.

In a largely symbolic gesture, the state Senate — one day after throwing in the towel on drawing new voting districts and term limits — moved to ask voters to take the Legislature’s authority over redistricting. If the Senate thought that it would somehow restore voters’ faith in their willingness to give up power, it won’t, because it will take at least two years for the measure to get on the state ballot, and there are still no guarantees that it will.

It’s a classic case where everyone can agree that there is a problem, but no one can agree how to solve it. Somehow, Democrats and Republicans can pat themselves on the back for agreeing to hoist a $116 billion capital works bond onto the ballot but they can’t make any headway on an issue that directly affects their jobs.

After voters rejected Proposition 77 last year, a measure that would have wrested politicians of the power to draw up their own district boundaries, Assembly and Senate leaders promised that they would come up with a newer, fairer way for drawing legislative boundaries. And now we know the true meaning of an election-year promise.

Instead, what we got was this monumental meaculpa, issued as a joint statement from leaders of both parties. “There is no question about the need to reform the redistricting process and our current system of term limits in California,’’ the leaders said in a statement. “But … we feel it is the best course not to pursue a sweeping reform package in the waning hours of the legislative session.’’

They promised to tackle the issue again next year, no doubt with the same fervor with which they threw themselves at it, oh, a few weeks ago. And to that I can only say — don’t hold your breath.

Redistricting reform and term limits are hardly new issues. Drawing legislative and congressional voting boundaries has been a topic of debate in California for more than two decades, and term limits have been annually scrutinized virtually since voters approved them in 1990. And the reason they are hot topics is that the need to address the shortcomings is obvious — incumbent lawmakers have drawn their districts to ensure easy victories and they play musical chairs with political posts when they get termed out.

Indeed, if ever there were an argument for why voters should put the heat on Sacramento’s finest and force them to put the public interest ahead of their own, it came in November 2004 when 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 80 seats in the state Assembly and 20 state Senate seats were up for grabs. Yet, of the 153 seats allegedly being contested, not one changed party hands.

The Senate bill would give voters the ability to strip from the Legislature the authority to draw new districts by creating an 11-member panel of retired judges picked by legislative leaders. Yet the measure reportedly is already on shaky ground, since it requires a two-thirds majority vote, a hurdle that has proved almost insurmountable for most bills. And that will no doubt be harder to climb since it asks lawmakers to give up a guarantee for re-election.

Senate Majority LeaderDon Perata, D-Alameda, has already tried to lower expectations, saying the chances the Assembly would act on the bill before the legislative session expires at the end of the month was slim. The reason? There are just so many other items to be taken up at the end of the year and he doesn’t want to crowd this year’s ballot.

I’ve heard a lot of things in my day but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a politician say they were concerned that there were too many issues on the ballot. Sparing voters a little study time is always easier when it involves your future survival.

I have no more faith in the Legislature dealing with redistricting and term limits next year than the next, and it seems ever more likely that the only way to restore the public’s faith that either issue will be addressed will be in the untidy initiative process.

For it couldn’t be clearer that any time state lawmakers say they are rushing to finish their business, it just means another year of unfinished business.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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