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Jim Boren: Victory of open primary

The politicians in Sacramento, rummy from a lack of sleep during marathon budget negotiations, may regret agreeing to put the "open primary" on next year's ballot. That provision, if passed by voters, would dramatically change the way the California Legislature operates.

We should be cheering Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria for demanding that the open primary be put before voters as his price for providing the decisive 27th vote to pass the budget in the Senate.

The open primary would be a victory for mainstream California because candidates would have to be more moderate to win. The extremists in both parties got us into this budget mess.

The best part of the open primary is that it would lessen the influence of the major parties, which are now under control of the special interests. The Democrats do the bidding of the public employee unions and the Republicans take their marching order from corporate interests.

Combine the open primary with redistricting reform, which voters already have passed, and the radical politics practiced in the Legislature will have to change.

That's why you'll see the parties -- Democrats and Republicans -- getting together to kill the open primary measure when it hits the ballot.

There's a lot at stake, which is why millions will be spent in political advertising to persuade voters that the open primary is a bad thing. The campaign consultants will have a very good year in 2010, even in this bad economy.

Maldonado's demand for an open primary almost led to the Democrats refusing to pass the budget bill. They finally voted for it to get the budget passed. But check out what Sen. Gloria Romero said about the open primary, according to news reports:

"This is not good government. This is not political reform. This is old-fashioned special interest."

That's politician-speak, and demands a translation for those of us living outside of Sacramento. This is what Romero was really saying:

"An open primary will mean that I won't be able to get gobs and gobs of money from public employee unions, and that will be bad for my political career because I might actually have to represent all my constituents instead of just the special interests."

While Maldonado pushed the open primary into the budget package, it's an idea that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been backing since he arrived on the Sacramento political scene. He was thrilled to see it become part of the last-minute budget negotiations.

"We will have the opportunity to hold open primaries -- this will go on the ballot -- and this of course will encourage more moderate candidates, Schwarzenegger said in a news conference last week. "This means that elected officials won't be punished for doing what is right for California rather than what is right for the special interests. And also, people will not be punished by compromising instead of getting stuck in their ideological corners."

The open primary would replace the current partisan primary by having all the candidates for a seat run on the same ballot and the top two candidates would face off in the general election.

If the top two were Republicans, they would battle for the seat, and a Democrat would not be in the runoff. The top two could also be a Democrat and Republican, which would pose a more traditional race. The difference in the primary would be that all voters, including independents, would be choosing the candidates for the general election.

Maldonado is expected to be an outcast in the Republican Party for voting for the budget bill. But maybe he won't need the GOP as much if he runs in an open primary. He also leveraged his vote to get several other changes included in the budget package.

They include removing a proposed 12 cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax, and preventing lawmakers from increasing their pay when the state is facing a budget deficit.

The inability of the Legislature to get a balanced budget passed was merely a symptom of an elected body unable to deal with difficult issues. That's why lawmakers always defaulted to the "safe" position of gridlock.

But the public, already angered by the Legislature's antics, may now be willing to institute an open primary. That would be the best thing that comes out of this rotten budget process.

Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page

editor. E-mail him at jboren@fresnobee.com.