Budget and Redistricting: If They Had a Hammer

Kevin Yamamura and Jim Sanders have a story over at the Sacramento Bee that says Democrats are hoping that the maps to be released by the redistricting commission will free up some Republicans votes for a budget deal.

The story is remarkably thin. Yamamura and Sanders don’t quote a single Democrat as expressing such hopes. They do quote several people, all of them reasonably smart, as suggesting the release of the redistricting maps will have no effect or even the opposite effect. (Alas, the Capitol bureau of my old paper is well known for not letting complicating evidence get in the way of a good story angle or the conventional wisdom.) 

But what’s most remarkable about the story is that it fails to tell readers the big news this year about redistricting and the budget: that California voter approval in 2008 and 2010 of initiatives that removed the redistricting power from the Legislature and governor and handed it to a citizens commission has robbed leaders in the Capitol of a powerful tool for reaching budget agreement.

If voters had not passed the measure, Democrats would not be “hoping” that somebody else’s redistricting maps will change budget votes. It seems reasonably certain that they would be brandishing their redistricting power as a carrot and/or stick against recalcitrant legislators.

So far, Democratic attempts to leverage Republicans to vote for the budget have come to naught. Rounding up business support; threatening to concentrate spending cuts in GOP districts; scaring business by proposing to expand the taxing power of local governments: no tactic has worked.

But redistricting would have been a much bigger cudgel. The redistricting power touches on something Republicans care about even more than taxes: their own skins, and their party’s hold on the U.S. House of Representatives. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders might have used control over the shape of districts to win over enough votes to break the minority veto on the 2011-12 budget.

Instead, because voters listened to the siren call of “good government” “reformers” who believe that democracy can be improved by taking the politics out of politics, the state’s elected leaders this year have one tool fewer for rounding up a budget consensus. If the result is even deeper cuts in higher education and schools, the goo-goos will have a lot to answer for.