Politics & Government

Redistricting fallout far from clear

SACRAMENTO -- Fractures are developing in a campaign to alter legislative term limits that began with dreams of a Republican governor teaming with Democratic lawmakers, business with labor, and incumbent lawmakers with watchdog groups.

Gov. Schwarzenegger was stung last week when lawmakers ended this year's regular session without placing a separate redistricting measure on the Feb. 5 ballot, a condition he had set for possibly throwing his weight behind altering terms.

Schwarzenegger will not support the term limits initiative and might even oppose it unless the Legislature reconsiders redistricting -- and he is not alone, said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor's communications director.

"I think that everyone would agree that from a strategic standpoint, the best way to pass term limits is to get redistricting on [the ballot] with it," Mendelsohn said.

Business groups say their support for the term limits measure now is far from certain.

Michael Shaw, of the National Federation of Independent Business, said no vote has been taken but he is not optimistic.

"I think it's fair to say, at this point, that our members are not interested in extending the term limits of the current Legislature unless they can be assured that the next Legislature is going to be more responsive to their needs," Shaw said.

Richard Stapler, spokesman for backers of the term limits initiative, said their campaign is based on developing a strong coalition of backers rather than living or dying on Schwarzenegger's endorsement or that of any organization.

"I wouldn't want to speculate too much on what the governor will or won't do," he said. "But we feel good about our campaign."

Stapler said support for the term limits measure did not plummet when lawmakers left Sacramento last week with no deal on redistricting.

"I don't see any change in momentum," he said.

Term limits and redistricting are not directly related, but both affect the composition of the 80-member Assembly and 40-member Senate.

The term limits initiative seeks to alter the number of years that legislators can serve, while backers of a redistricting measure want to strip the Legislature of authority to draw political districts and give it to an independent commission.

Redistricting, which occurs once every 10 years, strikes at the heart of partisan politics because it can tilt the balance of power in communities where races are hotly contested.

By law, the Legislature has until Sept. 27 to place a redistricting overhaul on the Feb. 5 ballot -- and Secretary of State Debra Bowen has the authority to extend the date a little further.

But the issue is dead unless lawmakers are called back to Sacramento by legislative leaders, which is a longshot, all sides agree, because Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating on redistricting for more than three years and have been unable to reach consensus.

Stapler said voters are not demanding a February ballot pairing.

"We look at them as two completely separate issues that need to be debated in their own arenas," Stapler said.

Nearly six of every 10 California voters are inclined to support the term limits initiative, according to a Field Poll released last month.

Vast disparities also exist in campaign fundraising.

More than $2.7 million has been collected by the term limits initiative campaign, which is backed strongly by labor unions, health-care groups, Indian tribes and other interest groups that appear often before the Legislature.

By comparison, the campaign to defeat the initiative has attracted only about $150,000, all from Term Limits America, which advocates nationwide for ceilings on legislative service.

California law currently allows legislators to serve no more than eight years in the Senate and six in the Assembly.

The new initiative would reduce legislative service to 12 years, rather than 14, and allow all to be served in one house or a combination of both.

Opponents claim the measure is misleading, however, because it contains a provision allowing sitting legislators at least one extra term in their current seat.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata could remain in their leadership posts an extra six years and four years, respectively. Both are scheduled to be termed out next year.

Kathay Feng, director of California Common Cause, said failure to put redistricting on the ballot definitely would have repercussions.

"We have concerns about the term limits measure, and we've said that we would accept it only if it's paired with a good redistricting plan," she said.

Dan Schnur, who has helped lead the push for redistricting, said he has not given up hope for a last-minute ballot measure.

"There's no way in the world that a term limits initiative can pass without redistricting on the ballot," he said.

Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, said the group has not voted on whether to endorse term limits as a standalone.

Redistricting is a priority, but passage of the term limits measure conceivably could help stabilize the Legislature by allowing freshmen to concentrate on public policy rather than plan their next career move, Zaremberg said.

"I don't think there's any question that had the package included redistricting, it would have dealt with solving more problems in the political process," Zaremberg said. "But that doesn't mean term limits can't stand on its own."