L.A. Is Right to Sue State on Redistricting

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)

A bit of good news on the political reform front. Los Angeles is resisting the state’s effort to impose dubious redistricting reform on the county.

In a new law targeting only L.A. county, the state created a redistricting commission for the county based on the state version. The idea is to find people who have little connection to recent politics, with the supposed goal of creating a bipartisan commission to decide L.A.’s supervisorial districts.

But L.A. County has now filed suit against the state, and is making good arguments in the process. The law targets only one county. And despite its claims of bipartisanship, the measure could produce a commission that is 70 percent Democratic.

State redistricting has similar defects; no formula or commission can’t be gamed. And politics can’t be removed from the process of drawing district lines.

So who should have that power? The argument is: it’s a conflict of interest for the politicians involved to draw their own districts. That’s a good argument, but it’s not the only one.

Here’s another. California politicians, especially on the local level, have precious little leverage to do good things because they have little power. So much in California is already decided by constitutions, city charters, ballot initiatives, and legal rulings. The power of redistricting was – before reform – one of the fewer real levers that politicians possessed to push colleagues to do hard things.

Now that’s gone at the state level. And it could be gone in LA county, if the suit doesn’t succeed.

And there are real costs to that. Look at taxes at the state level. Everyone knows the tax system needs reform. But where do you get the leverage, given the 2/3 vote requirement on taxes? Redistricting might have offered such leverage in 2011, when Gov. Brown had just returned to office. But the reform of redistricting took away that leverage.

L.A. county could also lose that leverage. And for what reason? The county has generally been well-run. When the city of LA suffered big budget problems during the Great Recession, the county managed its way through.

Why, in this context, would you pursue a reform that does so little, and restricts elected officials who already are too restricted?

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