What the GOP Needs to Get for Giving Up Two-Thirds

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

If Tony Quinn is right, the Democrats may get a two-thirds
supermajority in the Assembly next year.

This
possibility should focus the Republican mind. Now is the time for the GOP to
press for a constitutional reform deal. Republicans have a big card that they
should give up for good reason – the two thirds requirements for raising taxes
or fees. But they shouldn’t just give it up. They need to get something very
specific in return.

What should
that be?

The
reflexive would likely start with: at the very least "a real spending limit and
pension reform." Republicans, those are fool’s gold. Spending limits are
totally unpredictable – you don’t know how they’ll work, or not work as they
interact with all the other spending and tax formulas in California. (See the
Gann spending limit and a host of other spending restrictions passed over the
past 30 years). And the pension reform that Republicans want is unlikely to
last because it is based on a two-tiered system, with less generous retirements
for new state employees than old ones. Two-tiered systems are inherently
unstable. When the good economic times return, they inevitably revert to
one-tier systems.

No, what
Republicans should demand – and make non-negotiatble — is an honest election
system. The great unspoken truth about the current election system is that it
is unfair to the GOP. Republicans get a far higher percentage of the votes cast
for the legislature in California than their percentage of representation in
the legislature. (Little noticed fact: the GOP performance in legislative races
last year was their best in at least a decade, but California’s single-member
legislative districts and the political geography of the state obscured that
progress). Now the redistricting commission may be drawing lines that make the
system even worse for Republicans.

So what
would be fair to Republicans? A system that gives the GOP representation that
matches its numbers – and gives the Republicans an honest chance to build its
support, compete everywhere in California — and win back control of the
legislature.

Such a
system would have to include elements proportional representation. Unfortunately,
too many Republicans will want to stop reading right here. Proportional
representation is used by Europeans, among others, and by Flash Report logic
anything the least bit European is by definition socialist.

But p.r.
would be the Republicans’ salvation here. First, a proportional system for
allocating legislative representatives would Republicans an immediate boost of
a few seats in each house of the legislature. And a regional proportional
system would also allow Republicans to compete and win seats – for the first
time in decades – in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. That’s because in a
proportional system, every vote counts everywhere. The more Bay Area voters can
be convinced to vote Republican, the more representation the GOP will get.

Regional,
multi-member districts would help the GOP too, particularly if combined with an
expansion of the legislature’s size. Instead of slugging it out with unions in
giant single-member districts where Republicans have no chance of getting much
attention, each region’s GOP organizations could work together to develop an
agenda. And since media are regional, such regional races would be more likely
to draw coverage – and give the Republicans a chance to make the case for these
agendas.

It is hard
to overstate the amount of oxygen that a regional election system with real
competition would provide to the nearly lifeless GOP. The party would get a
hearing from voters everywhere. And if the party developed ideas that caught
fire, the GOP could win back power in the legislature.

If such a
system were part of the deal, trading away two-thirds on revenues would make
sense. The absence of two-thirds would help the party compete in an honest
election set-up-by eliminating any minority party responsibility for the
budget. Drawing the contrast would be simple. "The Democrats had the power,
raised taxes and broke the budget. And if you put us in power, we’ll lower
taxes and balance the budget."

All this
said, if Democrats won’t give the GOP this kind of election system, Republicans
should hold onto two-thirds with all their might – and try desperately to
prevent a two-thirds Democratic majority. But if Democrats are willing to give
Republicans an honest system, Republicans should jump at it.

At least if they ever want to be California’s majority
party again.

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