You'd think the legislators might try something new, given voters' dark view of them. But you'd be wrong.
Californians approved a ballot measure in 2008 to bring a little fairness and less gerrymandering to the way in which legislative district boundaries are drawn.
This year, politicians, including former Speaker Karen Bass, are raising money for a ballot measure that would kill the redistricting measure before the first lines are drawn.
That's bad enough.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
But the latest gambit is stunning. Democratic leaders in the Legislature and their attorneys entered into talks on a deal that might have spelled the demise of an open primary measure on the June ballot.
It was an especially underhanded play.
The details are almost beside the point. It looks to be an example of how lawmakers seem unable to say "no" to their campaign patrons. In this era of term limits, it also suggests that deals struck by one set of leaders don't apply to the next.
The episode does not bode well for newly minted Speaker John A. Pérez, who was aware of the suit. His aides authorized the Legislative Counsel's Office to enter into discussions with a union that hoped, via a lawsuit, to alter the wording with buzzwords designed to persuade the electorate to vote it down.
First, some background. As part of last year's budget deal, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature agreed to place the open primary measure on the June ballot.
Sen. Abel Maldonado, a Santa Maria Republican, extracted the concession in exchange for voting for the budget, thinking it would help moderates like him win election.
That concept doesn't sit well with chiefs in either the Democratic or Republican parties, who believe correctly that an open primary system would undermine their power.
Partisan interest groups including many unions also despise open primaries, believing voters would elect more moderates and fewer ideologues. They're probably correct, too. Voters, by contrast, overwhelmingly favor the idea.
Now, a year after the deal was struck, a power play is taking place, or at least an attempt at one.
One of the Democrats' most loyal benefactors is the California School Employees Association. The union, represented by Olson, Hagel & Fishburn, a law firm that long has done work for the California Democratic Party, filed suit last week challenging the title and summary worked out in last year's deal for the open primary measure, Proposition 14.
As it sued, the union entered into talks with the Legislature's Democratic leaders to get them to accede to the union's wishes to alter how the open primary measure would be portrayed to the public.
Without talking to Maldonado or Schwarzenegger, Democrats authorized their attorneys in the Legislative Counsel's Office to reach an accord with the union.
The purpose was to alter how the measure is summarized for voters, substituting words that Schwarzenegger and the Legislature had agreed upon only a year ago with new words that likely would lead to its defeat.
It might have worked, except that attorneys representing Maldonado learned of the play this past week by accident when an open primary backer happened across a blog that mentioned the lawsuit.
After a frantic few days, lawyers for Maldonado and Schwarzenegger appeared before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Allen H. Sumner on Tuesday, and won the right to intervene in the effort to water down the ballot title and summary — over the objection of attorneys for the union.
Another hearing was held Thursday; the judge's decision is expected today.
Pérez told me that he was party to no deal, other than to "see if we could work something out." Maldonado was having none of it, calling the episode "frankly embarrassing" to the Legislature.
Old-timers were particularly distraught to see what is becoming of the institution. Former Speaker Willie Brown told me he was "flabbergasted" by events in the institution he dominated for decades.
"Somebody doesn't understand what the protocol is, what the rules are," Brown said.
"I've been in this business for over 40 years, and I have witnessed a lot of outrageous behavior," said Steve Merksamer, of the Republican political firm Nielsen, Merksamer, which represents Maldonado. "I must say I have never seen a more cynical or shameful attempted abuse of power."
Former Sen. Steve Peace, a Democrat, is an open primary proponent. But as he sees it, the issue has little to do with an open primary. It has much more to do with how far the Legislature has fallen.
"Clearly, they did get caught," Peace said.
Peace is no neophyte. He understands deals, power and intrigue. He was one of a handful of legislators who tried to unseat Willie Brown from the speakership in the late 1980s. He was a lawmaker when others became enmeshed in the corruption scandals.
This episode doesn't involve crooks having their hands out.
Rather, he said, it's more subtle and perhaps more insidious. It entails exercise of power not because legislators hope to do some good, but simply because they could exercise power.
The most recent public polls by Field and Public Policy Institute of California showed that a mere 16 percent of likely voters think the Legislature is doing a good job. I wonder who those people are.
Lawmakers hope that one day, voters will loosen or overturn term limits. So long as stuff like this happens, it's far more likely that voters will become so disgusted that they deliver a knockout punch to the small-timers and make the Legislature into a part-time institution.
THE SACRAMENTO BEE