San Diego Union Tribune

May 23, 2004

Issa sets sights on reforms in government


WASHINGTON Darrell Issa, the Vista congressman whose personal wealth helped ignite last year's recall election, may be scaling his next mountain.

Issa now wants state government reform perhaps a Legislature that is part-time and free of term limits, and political districts that are drawn by citizens instead of lawmakers.

In the world of politics, such ideas are volatile, have been around for decades, and have fizzled for lack of voter support or political will. Yet, as he demonstrated with his financial backing of the recall against former Gov. Gray Davis, Issa has the ability to resurrect even those ideas that appear hopeless, some state political leaders believe.

"I think he's shown he has a good sense of where to put money with respect to issues important to the people of California," said state Republican chairman Duf Sundheim, who has spoken with Issa about the ideas. "We're now in a new century, and we have . . . learned over the last 40 years that some things work, and some things do not."

Some of the changes Issa is exploring would benefit his Republican Party, which holds a minority of seats in the statehouse and the California congressional delegation.

"If a fix is better than the status quo, then I will push for it with my time, energy and if necessary, my money," said Issa, who said he may pay for a think-tank study of the reforms, then promote some through the Legislature or, if necessary, the ballot.

The recall effort was languishing until Issa, who made a fortune through his car-alarm business, stoked the campaign with about $2 million.

Conservative leader Ted Costa, who started the recall effort, recently failed to qualify a November ballot measure that would have given the redistricting job to an impartial panel.

Currently, Sacramento lawmakers redraw political boundaries every 10 years to ensure that state and federal lawmakers represent an equal number of constituents. Lawmakers especially those who control the statehouse often are accused of creating districts that are geographically impractical but politically advantageous for incumbents, particularly those of the party in power.

Issa, who said any redistricting changes should occur after the 2010 census, believes the current system has created partisan districts that elect politicians so ideologically extreme they cannot govern effectively.

Some other ideas Issa wants to explore include:

Repealing term limits. Voters in 1990 limited Assembly members to six years in office and state senators to eight. Many say term limits have drained the statehouse of institutional knowledge and shifted power to staffers and lobbyists.

A unicameral legislature. The statehouse has an 80-member Assembly and 40-member Senate. Critics say this is duplicative, time-consuming and costly, and that a one-house legislature would be better. Nebraska is the only state with a one-chamber legislature.

A part-time legislature. California is one of four states with a full-time legislature. Schwarzenegger recently suggested that part-time lawmakers might be more efficient and productive.

Reputable think tanks and commissions have studied all these ideas, and lawmakers have promoted some in the state Capitol. Many are embraced by leading political experts. Issa said the time may be ripe for government reform, in part because the public holds state lawmakers in such low regard.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll last September found that 21 percent of likely voters believed they could trust the Legislature to do what is right just about always, or most of the time.

"It's always best to try to get (such ideas) through the legislative process, then you can truly have a public hearing . . . ," Issa said. "If that fails most importantly if it's stonewalled and no real reform comes out then the initiative process is appropriate."

California voters have rejected past ballot measures to repeal term limits. The Democrats who control the Legislature probably would oppose a one-house body, a new redistricting process and shifting to part-time the latter because it might give more power to Schwarzenegger.

"These lawmakers have reached their office through the current arrangement," said Steven Frates, a senior fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. "This means money, perks and power, and many of these people have no other career."

Some are suspicious of Issa's motives. Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he believes the congressman is seeking publicity in preparation for perhaps another run for statewide office. Issa has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, and he dropped out of last year's race to replace Davis.

"When I hear of a politician talking about political reform in California, it's clear he wants to run for statewide office," Torres said. "These are all worn ideas."