California has finally approved a budget that will (hopefully) carry the state through the next 17 months. The process was a case study in the extreme partisanship that has polarized (and paralyzed) the California legislature for years. Although there are a number of factors that are responsible for creating this polarization, it is clear that the system, however it came about, is broken.
Some blame direct democracy, specifically the initiative process, which allows us (the people) to make law, institute spending requirements and revenue restrictions with little or no consideration to other budgetary realities. Three strikes, Prop 13 and First 5 are just a few examples of cleverly campaigned initiatives by well-organized groups that appealed to “the people.” One of the initiatives that was designed to remove lawmakers who have taken up permanent residence at the Capitol was term-limits. A good argument can be made that what appeared to be the panacea to the career politician in California only created a deeper rift between the parties.
Is there no hope? Is California at the mercy of the extremist, the ideologues of the two parties? Soon, maybe not. Along with this budget comes a state constitutional amendment proposal. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican senator from California’s 15th District representing San Louis Obispo County and parts of Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Santa Clara County, has won a concession from the Democrats that neither party really wants. It will put an amendment on the ballot that will create open primaries. In the process, he has managed to enrage his Republican cohorts and possibly committed political suicide by voting to approve the state budget.
Currently, the closed primary plays to the advantage of the extremists. To win the party nomination of either party, the candidates must appeal only to members of his or her own party. The pool of available voters runs from the middle to the extreme left or right, depending on party. In this system, a moderate doesn’t stand a chance against an ideologue. In an open primary, the candidates must appeal to the all voters, the top two candidates will advance to the general election, regardless of party. Since most voters reside somewhere other than the two extremes, the chances of electing moderate representation is greatly enhanced.
With more moderate (read reasonable) representation, perhaps the legislature can begin to function again. The initiative will likely face stiff opposition from both parties, but I sincerely hope that the people will see through the partisan bickering and act in the best interest of the state, not some extreme ideology. Maldonado might have signed his political death warrant – if the initiative does not apply to state-wide offices (such as governor), he likely would not be able to attract the partisan support necessary to win a state-wide primary. And he is termed-out of the senate in 2012.
But if successful, his legacy could possibly immortalize him as the man who saved California - from itself.