Three members of the first California Citizens Redistricting Commission visited Pennsylvania on September 16 to 18 to share their experience in drawing district lines. This was the third delegation from the commission to visit PA. As Commissioner Cynthia Dai said hopefully, “Maybe the third time’s the charm.”
Dai was the group’s Democrat, a Silicon Valley strategy consultant and interim executive for tech firms in transition. Peter Yao, a lifelong Republican, retired from a corporate career with Raytheon before serving as councilman, then mayor, for the City of Claremont. Stan Forbes, the group’s independent, is a third-generation almond farmer and owner of the largest independent bookstore in Central California.
On this visit, the commissioners called attention to the economic implications of gerrymandering and the clear benefits of redistricting reform. They told the compelling story of California’s years on the edge of bankruptcy. The legislature was caught in perpetual gridlock, unable to address pressing problems. Budget impasses lasted for months. The Economist described the state as “ungovernable.” Their bond rating was the lowest in the nation. The approval rating of the state legislature hovered around 10%. At one point the state faced projected deficits of over $40 billion.
In 2008, a citizen’s initiative created an independent commission to draw state house and senate districts. In 2010, the dominant Democratic party pushed back hard, in a referendum lead by Nancy Pelosi. That referendum failed while a second citizens initiative passed, giving the commission authority to draw congressional districts as well.
SInce then budgets are passed on time and the bond rating has risen steadily. Approval ratings of the legislature, after two elections with new district lines, reached a high of 50%. As the national economy rebounded from the recession, California’s rebounded more strongly. The state now has a budget surplus of nearly $30 billion.
Redistricting reform is not a panacea, and national and global economic trends play a part in the California story. At the same time, legislative gridlock does have economic impacts, visible in Pennsylvania. In 2017 our PA credit rating hit its lowest in 39 years after an almost nine month budget impasse. That drop put our state among the lowest five in the country, adding an estimated $52 million to annual debt payments. “The downgrade [in PA’s credit rating] largely reflects the commonwealth’s chronic structural imbalance dating back nearly a decade, a history of late budget adoption, and our opinion that this pattern could continue,” S&P analyst Carol Spain said in a statement in September 2017. That downgraded rating remains in place.
The commissioners shared their stories at a public meeting in King of Prussia, two smaller business briefings, and in testimony at the House State Government Committee hearing. At each, they stressed collaboration, transparency and the importance of public input. Redistricting reform puts power back in the hands of citizens when it gives them a say about where district lines should be drawn. Redistricting reform can restore government of, by and for the people. It also can assure a more responsive, accountable legislature and create a climate where local economies can thrive.