In California, being a moderate politician is rare, but as Sen. Abel Maldonado demonstrated this week, rarity can lead to power.
On Thursday, with the state's finances on the brink and lawmakers in their third month of gridlock, the fate of the nation's largest state fell in the hands of one man -- Maldonado -- the only moderate Republican in the 40-member senate.
Maldonado agreed to offer his lynchpin "yes" vote on the condition that several of his demands be met.
Most of them were granted. The most sweeping among them is his call for the state to hold open primary elections.
Maldonado, whose 15th district includes the Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey areas, also scored on two other demands: that lawmakers be prohibited from receiving a salary hike during deficit years, and that the proposal for a gas-tax increase be eliminated.
But it is his controversial call for open primary elections that arguably will have the most visible impact on everyday Californians.
The idea of a primary election -- open or no -- is to winnow a field of candidates to two finalists.
In an open primary, citizens are not restricted to voting for candidates of their own party. So, for instance, if the primary race for an assembly seat included four candidates -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- everyone would vote for all four. This means that general elections could conceivably pit a Republican versus a Republican, or a Democrat against a Democrat, because the general election would feature the top two vote-getters from the primary election, regardless of their party affiliation, said Francisco Castillo, a spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office.
Maldonado's open-primary demand still isn't a done deal. While it's true Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to add the reform provision to his proposed budget package, and while it's true the budget was approved early Thursday by both the state Senate and Assembly, the open-primary legislation still must be approved at the polls. This means the final say still rests in the hands of the voters.
Californians will decide the fate of the idea during the state primary election in June of 2010. If voters approve the idea, California will join the handful of others across the nation -- such as right-leaning Texas and left-leaning Washington -- that hold open primaries. Open-primary voting would begin in 2012.
The Maldonado camp insists that holding open primaries is the key to reversing an increasing trend in California of partisan deadlock. Due in part to gerrymandered districts, seat holders in both parties are becoming increasingly partisan, while moderates are becoming an endangered species.
"We're hoping this will end the gridlock that has defined Sacramento for the past 10 years," Brooke Armour, Maldonado's communication director, told HispanicBusiness.com Thursday. "This is the type of reform that will change the way California is governed."
The state has held open primaries in the past. In 1996, voters passed an open-primary initiative, and were allowed to cast ballots regardless of political party affiliation in 1998 and 2000, the L.A. Times reported. But the courts struck down the law as unconstitutional in 2000, saying only members of a political party had the right to pick their own candidates.
Also, Californians seem lukewarm on the idea; in 2004, voters shot down a ballot initiative calling for a return to open primaries.
On Thursday morning, Maldonado's open-primary idea was ill received by some lawmakers, especially Democrats. Some view it as a threat to their tenure. Others questioned Maldonado's motives. He has run for statewide offices before -- in 2006 he lost a bid for State Controller to current leader John Chiang -- and some believe he could do so again, and that an open primary would improve his odds.
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-L.A.), called it "disgusting," according to the L.A. Times, and said Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) wondered what it had to do with passing a budget.
However, Gov. Schwarzenegger praised the idea as a necessary step toward fixing a system that is broken.
"We've got to bring people to the center," he said during a noon press conference Thursday. "Legislators are so far out to the right and left, it's very hard to bring them together."
Schwarzenegger, who campaigned for the unsuccessful open-primary initiative in 2004, added that the Republicans' refusal to vote on the budget in spite of a looming economic disaster was symptomatic of the problem.
"To them . . . it was very, very difficult because it could mean the end of their career," he said. "The system is such that you get punished sometimes for doing what is good for the people."
Meanwhile, Maldonado's request to prohibit pay increases for legislators during deficit years was met with less opposition.
Armour noted that the last salary hike for legislators came in December 2007, when they received a bump of 2.75 percent.
That same year, the state was grappling with a deficit of up to $4 billion, and the very next year the state had to undergo midyear budget cuts.
"California's legislators are already the highest paid in the nation," said Armour, adding that, on average, they make $116,000 yearly.
Finally, Maldonado succeeded in eliminating the proposed 12-cent increase in the gas tax.
The budget still contains $12 billion in new taxes. They include 1-percent hike on sales taxes, a 0.25 percent increase in income taxes, and a near doubling of the vehicle license fee, to 1.15 percent.
Most Popular Stories
- Ex-Mobster to Bulger: Just Say Sorry
- Google Stock Split Ahead
- Guns Are Hot in California
- OSH Selling Most of Its Stores to Lowe's
- El Paso Symposium Offers Help to Startups
- MillerCoors Taps New Hispanic Ad Agency
- Small Businesses Hiring, but Worry About Expense
- First Person Cured of AIDS Virus Wants to Help Others
- Honda Says Sorry About the Lack of Electric Fits
- LULAC Convention Starts With Focus on LGBT Youth