LOS ANGELES » Before Washington, California was the national symbol of partisan paralysis and government dysfunction.
This was the place where voter initiatives slashed the power of state lawmakers, runaway deficits and gridlocked budgets were the rule of the day, and a circus of a recall election forced a governor out of office 10 months after he took power.
But over the past month, California has been the stage for a series of celebrations of unlikely legislative success — a parade of bill signings that offered a contrast between the federal shutdown in Washington and an acrimony-free California Legislature that enacted laws dealing with subjects including school financing, immigration, gun control and abortion.
The turnaround from just 10 years ago — striking in tone, productivity and, at least on fiscal issues, moderation — is certainly a lesson in the power of one-party rule. Democrats hold an overwhelming majority in the Assembly and Senate and the governor, Jerry Brown, is a Democrat. The Republican Party, which just three years ago held the governor’s seat and a feisty minority in both houses, has diminished to the point of near irrelevance.
But the new atmosphere in Sacramento also offers the first evidence that three major changes in California’s governance system intended to leach some of the partisanship out of politics — championed by government reform advocates — may also be having their desired effect in a state that has long offered itself as the legislative laboratory for the nation.
"You see Republicans voting for immigration reform, you see Democrats voting for streamlining environmental regulations," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "You never would have seen that before."
Lawmakers came into office this year representing districts whose lines were drawn by a nonpartisan commission, rather than under the more calculating eye of political leaders. This is the first Legislature chosen under a nonpartisan election system where the top-two finishers in a primary run against each other, without party affiliations, an effort to prod candidates to appeal to a wider ideological swath of the electorate.
And California voters last year approved an initiative to ease stringent term limits, which had produced a statehouse filled with inexperienced legislators looking over the horizon to the next election. Lawmakers can now serve 12 years in either the Assembly or the Senate.
The other day, Anthony Cannella, a Republican state senator, joined Democrats as Brown signed a bill co-sponsored by Cannella permitting unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Cannella’s district, which was 35 percent Republican when he was elected in 2010, is now 14 percent Republican under district lines drawn by the independent commission.
Unlike Republicans in other parts of the country, Cannella is far from insulated from the demographic shifts in California, where growing Latino and Asian populations favor Democrats. Cannella, who described himself as a longtime supporter of the immigration bill, said the redistricting and nonpartisan election changes were freeing lawmakers from obedience to their party bases.
"It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues," he said. "They were afraid of getting primaries. Now, it’s not just their base they have to appeal to."
Adam Mendelsohn, a former senior adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who championed the ballot changes, said they were altering the nature of the Legislature but also his own party.
"It gives Republicans the chance to break from their caucus on certain issues," he said. "It is very different than it was four or five years ago."
Democrats may also be changing. The state Chamber of Commerce reported last month that 39 of the 40 bills it had described as "job-killing" — regulatory legislation that typically was supported by Democrats — had been defeated this year.
"In the freshman class, a lot of the folks had moderate voting records," said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat who was elected to the state Assembly last year, evidence of the need for many legislators to appeal beyond the Democratic base.
But Rendon, who is also a political scientist, said that of the three changes, term limits were having the most immediate effect. Rendon said he had held back a child care bill that would have permitted unions to represent home-based child care workers this year, so he could draft a bill that would draw a broader coalition of support next year.
"We don’t need to solve all the states’ problems in the first year out," he said.
The fact that these reforms are kicking in at the same time Democrats enjoy ironclad control of the government makes it difficult to draw long-term conclusions about their effectiveness. Some critics of state governance argued that Democratic dominance and the fact that Brown has proved to be a moderating force on his party, vetoing certain bills on gun control and immigration, were as much driving factors.
"It’s sort of like the good government community and political elite are doing an end zone dance at the 45-yard line," said Joe Mathews, a longtime critic of California’s governance system. "We’ve been in this box for so long, there’s such a natural hunger to say things are doing better that things are going better."
Sen. Kevin de Lesn, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said the chorus crediting the reforms for a turnaround came from the same government reform groups who advocated them — over (not incidentally) the opposition of many political leaders.
"Some years we are the cover of Time magazine as the model state that can teach the country what to do," he said. "The next cycle it’s, ‘The California Dream has popped.’ It’s too premature."
As Mathews noted, ballot initiatives continue to be a force for disruption in California governance — the most notable example being Proposition 13, which severely limited the ability of governments to raise taxes. Voters two years ago rolled back the requirement that two-thirds of lawmakers approve any spending increase, removing a major impediment in Sacramento, but there remains a two-third requirement for raising taxes.
J. Stephen Peace, a former Democratic legislator who is head of the Independent Voter Project, which pressed for the top-two voting system, said the very fact of Democratic dominance was actually evidence of how the reforms were changing the way business is done.
"Only with a top-two majority would you have an overwhelming Democratic Legislature which is also the most moderate legislature in 30 years," he said. "Look at the Chamber of Commerce job kills list – every measure on it was defeated except the increase in the minimum wage."
The sunny assessment of the changes has widespread support, voiced by people inside and outside the government. "They have already started to create a more functional legislature," said Kathay Feng, the California executive director of Common Cause. "In light of the shutdown on the federal level, what happened in California has provided even more of a contrast."
There is reason to think changes in legislative behavior might get more pronounced with turnover and as incumbent legislators who have not faced competitive elections before begin confronting a more competitive electoral landscape.
"We can already see that these reforms are improving the function of the Legislature and forcing people to come out of their partisan boxes and talk to the broader electorate," said Sam Blakeslee, head of the California Reform Institute and a former Republican member of the Assembly. "We’re seeing, almost against the odds, a more centrist legislature, at least when it comes to jobs and budget issues."