Senate lines are blurred in foothills

By Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat January 04, 2013 10:35 am

Calaveras County has been without a state senator for the first month of this session of the California Legislature.

The county’s 45,000 people are not alone, as almost 4 million of California’s estimated 38 million residents are in the same boat.


Blame rests at the feet of the quirks of the decennial redistricting process. Every 10 years, legislative districts are redrawn to ensure equivalent populations. 

This was no problem in the U.S. House of Representatives and California State Assembly, where each member comes up for re-election every two years. 

However, California state senators are elected for four-year terms and odd- and even-numbered districts vote on different cycles.

Residents who were shifted from an odd-numbered district to an even one in 2012, like those in Calaveras, Amador, Mono and numerous other counties, were left without a senator when the session began on Dec. 3. 

Calaveras County had been in the 1st Senate District, manned by Rocklin Republican Ted Gaines. Gaines won re-election in that district in November, but its new lines excluded much of its former southern reach, including Calaveras and Amador.

Both of those foothills counties, along with Mono, are part of the new 8th Senate District, that will not take effect until the 2014 election cycle. 

The even-numbered districts in place since 2002 remain in effect until then. In 1992, the same thing happened, only those shifted from an even to an odd district were the ones left without a senator.

The redistricting also has the effect of giving some voters, those shifted from even to odd districts in the latest re-drawing, two senators while others have none. 

The doubled-up population is also about 4 million, according to an analysis by the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise, which lie in counties with both “accelerated” two-senator areas and “deferred” no-senator regions, to use Senate parlance.

“Because the elections are staggered, some people are left over from the old system,” said Secretary of the Senate Greg Schmidt, who is the top staff executive for the chamber. 

The resulting situation has been found constitutional by the court system, but other states have found ways to avoid it. In Illinois, for example, senators are elected to two four-year terms and then a two-year term within a 10-year period. 

In Washington state, each legislative district chooses two members of the state House of Representatives every two years and a state senator every four. In Nebraska, a unicameral Legislature with a single chamber exists.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, advocated a unicameral legislature of 100 members in a January 2012 speech to the Calaveras County Taxpayers Association.

Olsen, the foothills’ Assembly representative prior to redistricting, called such a move a “bold reform” that only makes sense after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state legislative districts of unequal population in the 1960s.

The Senate makes an effort to remedy the lack-of-representation problem for most of the two-year cycle by appointing a caretaker senator to handle constituent services early on in the session. Schmidt said he hopes to have a decision from the bipartisan Senate Rules Committee by Wednesday on those assignments.

Schmidt said staff has recommended Modesto Republican Tom Berryhill as the logical choice for assignment to Calaveras County.

Factors such as “if they’re going to be incorporated into the district in 2014” and “trying to balance the bailiwick of stuffing too many constituents into one senator’s territory” are taken into account in making the final determinations, he said.

In Berryhill’s case, he has geographic proximity and familiarity to Calaveras. He previously represented Calaveras County as its assemblyman from 2006 to 2010, when he gained election to the 14th Senate District seat vacated by Dave Cogdill’s retirement. That district includes Tuolumne County.

Berryhill has filed preliminary paperwork to seek the new 8th District seat for his 2014 re-election campaign. The new district will incorporate Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties, while also stretching west into Oakdale and south into Fresno County.

Messages left with Berryhill’s capitol and Modesto offices seeking comment for this story were not returned Thursday.