What Now, California?


brokengovernment1The skunking of all five special election budget measures backed by Governor Arnold and the Can’t Shoot Straight Legislature was a clear signal that voters are way beyond fed up with half-measures, marginal fixes and smoke and mirrors in Sacramento.

Like a winless team trotting out a five-lateral trick play in the final seconds of the last game of the season, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature tried to pull a fast one, hoping to avoid facing the hard reality that it’s time for fundamental political change in California.

“The public is making a statement, loud and clear, that they expect action,” said Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council. “The seriousness of the problem has reached a crescendo.”

Executives of the council today are scheduled to roll out the most serious call for sweeping political reform in California since Hiram Johnson – an ambitious plan for an historic constitutional convention to overhaul the fiscal, management and electoral structures and operations of a government that spends $144 billion a year, chronically fails to pass a budget and has plunged the state into a thick muck of debt it will take decades to clean up.

With recession sapping the economic strength of the state, and voters holding record-low opinions of their state leaders, the time is ripe for this kind of quantum change. In parallel with the Bay Area Council, the good government group California Forward has launched its own agenda of political reform, while partisans and policy wonks alike prepare to fight for initiatives on reforms like open primary elections and dumping the two-thirds requirements for passing budgets and taxes.

California’s challenge is deceptively simple to envision but horrifically complex to accomplish: restoring democracy where institutional chaos now reigns.

Since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, when Sacramento took on the task of managing the impact of property tax cuts in cities, counties and special districts across the state, the on-the-fly reorganization of political and financial relations between the Capitol and its provinces, coupled with a decades-long binge of budgeting by ballot box, has steadily evolved into a Byzantine patchwork of stunted and often self-canceling imperatives and ideologies.

By now, democracy — in the sense of a government by, of and for the people — has become so completely distorted, perverted and corrupted in California that tinkering, however well-intentioned, is not enough. It’s not about “blowing up boxes,” as Arnold famously, and demagogically, promised to do. It’s about dismantling and rebuilding democratic government based on three key values: accountability, trust and modern, measurable performance of the people and programs funded by taxpayers.

None of this is entirely new, of course. As with most things about California, the writer Carey McWilliams got it right — in 1949 — when he offered this assessment in “California: The Great Exception.”

“California, the giant adolescent, has been outgrowing its governmental clothes now, for a hundred years. The first state constitution was itself an improvisation; and from that time to the present, governmental services have lagged far behind population growth. Other states have gone through this phase too, but California has never emerged from it. It is this fact which underlies the notorious lack of social and political equilibrium in California.”

But in the past 60 years, things have gotten worse. The system today is constricted, subverted and hamstrung by special-interest ballot propositions, two-thirds vote requirements, gerrymandering, term limits and raging rivers of free-flowing political cash. The governor and Legislature have been circumscribed and neutered.

California Forward, a civic improvement coalition created by California Common Cause, Center for Governmental Studies, New California Network and The Commonwealth Club of California’s Voices of Reform Project, is advocating short-term fixes for the budget and is considering long-term reforms as well.

Short term, they’re pushing for managing the spikes in state revenues, a pay-as-you-go requirement, results-based budgeting, a two-year budget and other reforms. As a bipartisan group, they have not yet been able to agree on whether to push to reduce the two-thirds requirement for passing the budget and/or raising revenues.

But California Forward co-chairman Bob Hertzberg, a former Democratic Speaker of the Assembly, personally believes the most important reform would be to return power to local governments – where accountability is most immediate — and give them the power to raise funds by majority vote.

“The key to restoring democracy in California is bringing government closer to the people,” he said. “People should be getting what they’re paying for and paying for what they want.”

The scale at which state government is trying to operate – by funding education, health care, public safety and the like for 38 million people – is simply too large. The unintended consequences of Proposition 13 – which shifted money and power to Sacramento – must be undone, he argues.

Specific solutions aside for now, fixing the fetid mess in Sacramento will require the commitment, not just of politicians who see the writing on the wall, but also of the mainstream media, which has nurtured widespread ignorance about the business of state politics and government by systematically ignoring it: Not a single TV station from a major California city has a bureau there.*

Most of all, it will require the involvement of taxpaying citizens, who must bear responsibility for choices that have yielded harmful, if unintended, political consequences.

“We need a citizen-induced fix,” as Wunderman puts it: “California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future.”

*CORRECTION: Nannette Miranda is the Capitol Correspondent for the ABC network-owned TV stations in California: KABC-TV Los Angeles, KGO-TV San Francisco, and KFSN-TV Fresno. She is technically and contractually a KABC-TV Los Angeles reporter. Calbuzz regrets the error.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 27 comments for this post

  1. avatar Packherd says:

    Wonderful post. I could not have said it better myself!

    Now let the Constitutional fur fly…

  2. avatar Anonymous says:

    Love the Carey McW. quote. All that is “new” in CA politics was observed oh, so long ago, by that wise sage.

    A thoughtful piece and one where the points raised have but about 6 months of issue space before being co-opted by the 2010 electoral cycle.

  3. avatar Peter Richardson says:

    Thanks for the Carey McWilliams quote and pic. One of his chapters is called “Perilous Remedies for Present Evils,” which may apply to the ballot-box budgeting you mention.

  4. avatar Anonymous says:

    Of course, for us junkies, the real story of the night is just how badly Debra Bowen continues to completely @#$%-up the Secretary of State’s website.

    Following the very predictable crash of the server last election, we are now faced with a sigificant REDUCTION in the site’s functionality, all in the name of “ewww, look how cool my java programming skills are!” toy gadgets!

    Someone needs to tell Debra and her pimple-faced techies that we want one thing: DATA — we want it fast, we want it simple, we want 58 counties on one screen, we want to be able to coy it into Excel without painful programming, and we want it accurate.

    Maps are nice and fun, but they are SECONDARY to comprehensive DATA.

    If you really want to impress us Debra, bring your website into the 1990s and offer all data in a downloadable Excel (or csv/txt) file with each update. It would be a very small file and actually reduce the load on your site.

    While you’re at it, could you repost all previous election finals in that format — your stupid pdf certified result files are the equivilent of 1960s-era documents. (And if you really want to earn your pay, post statewide precinct level data with home and consolidated precinct numbers in same row of data.)

    It is stunning that we have “progressed” to a site with about 1/10th the functionality of the site we had 10 years ago.

    I can’t believe I’m saying this — but I miss Bill Jones.

  5. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    All well and good, BUT …

    How does any of this happen?

  6. avatar Anonymous says:

    Are you kidding me? All of these outside groups won’t be any part of the solution. It will have to happen inside the Capitol. And quick. If there was any message from last night, it was voters are sick and tired of going to the polls and trying to be sold on big picture fixtures. Even redistricting — endorsed on a daily basis by every newspaper in the state and backed by all of these dogooders — barely squeaked to victory.

  7. avatar Anonymous says:

    I STRONGLY hope Herzberg gets California Forward refocused on devolution. The other stuff they have been advocating for is tinkering and likely to be most interest to the Sacramento Press Club and program officers of foundations. But a concentrated and well thought out DEVOLUTION program COULD capture the immagination of both conservations and liberals. Moreover, the school bonds and transportation self-help measures don’t necessarily mean you have to blow up super majority requirements. Even VERY conservative areas are willing to increase taxes through supermajority voters if they think there is a direct return on a specific investment when they have confidence that the money is going to be well spent. So lets start with Education funding. A GREAT project for California Forward is to develop some research on what a devolved K-12 system might look like – how much spending vaiations could still satisfy Serrano I and II, what revenue levels various proposals could produced and ways of increasing local control.

  8. avatar ashroughani.com says:

    I’m glad you pointed to the issue of media coverage. It is a fact that direct democracy cannot possibly work if people don’t understand what they’re voting on or how politics works. As John Myers tweeted last night, KCRA’s 6pm evening broadbast last night had the election as their fifth top story. Pitiful.

  9. avatar Rich Robinson says:

    Arnold owes Gray Davis a huge apology? This was a huge no confidence vote.

    I support Jim Wunderman’s approach, this State needs a new Constitution if it is ever to function.

    I know voters are angry, but wait until they see the results of their tantrum.

    Positive consequences rarely result from public displays of anger, no matter how seemingly justified.

  10. avatar Pete Stahl says:

    Of course it’s time for fundamental change, but that’s not why the propositions failed. They failed because there was no campaign to pass them. The legislators who voted for this compromise in February should have put on a full-court press to get them passed, with visions of fire and brimstone should they fail. They should have talked about “responsibility” and “accountability” and voters “stepping up to the plate” to share pain and do the right thing.

    But no. The legislators who passed the package in February couldn’t even get the state parties to endorse it. My own representatives were invisible; as far as I could tell, they *wanted* the props to fail.

    So voters were left watching the Guv and a few legislative leaders yammer about vague doom, while the special interests whose funding was on the ballot presented heart-wrenching images of 4-year-olds and mental patients, and the grim spectre of higher taxes. An easy choice for voters.

    Systemic change is needed, of course. But these ballot measures were orphaned back in February. If there had been a coordinated campaign with all hands on deck and a simple, compelling message, they would have had a chance.

  11. avatar Anonymous says:

    Wonderful post. Bring on the Constitutional Convention.

  12. avatar Hap Hazard says:

    Eliminating the 2/3 vote requirement is a code word for freeing up legislators ability to raise taxes. Rather narrow minded and tone deaf to propose that on the heels of a resounding repudiation of this mentality. I support majority vote on taxes and on budget bills, but it is laughable to me for this to be advanced now. How does this proposal pass? Oh yeah, we’re going to have a “constitutional convention.” Right. I think an initiative that “amends” the constitution to provide for a part-time legislature might be the more satisfying and productive avenue.

  13. avatar Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the 7:15 poster. The SecState’s website is HORRIBLE! Worse than every county website – and worst in the country.

    Dear SecState Bowen,

    First, to find the returns on your homepage we have to micronavigate a 6-pixel tall link. Debra, when 99% of your site visitors are looking for one thing — make it a fricking button!

    Second, if you want a graphic interface for county level data, don’t make me micronavigate my mouse into a tiny little box to get San Francisco data. And why can’t I get all counties on one screen like I used to be able to? Boy it sure is great that when I move mouse over to copy/paste the county results into an email – they disappear! What genius thought of this interface?!

    Third, forget the maps entirely – no one cares what California looks like — especially when nearly every county voted NO. (if you must have maps, have the basic wherewithall to shade different ranges of support/opposed so the map tells us something interesting.)

    Fourth, ALWAYS have a link for media and other professional analysts that gives us JUST THE DATA. One county on each row. That means 58 rows — no second row with little graphs or other data. We need to be able to easily put this data into other programs!

    Fifth, your pdf certified results files are useless! If statute requries that they be posted that way, fine. But why would you HIDE the useable interface from the public (e.g. vote2006.ss.ca.gov)?

    There are so many more things wrong with the SecState website. The one thing that is perfectly clear is that no one in that office seems to care what the real world is looking for. The site only serves one customer: the amateur citizen who is just looking for one number. And to serve that customer with a cute interface, the bulk of the data is being hidden from public view, inaccessible to anyone.

    Frustrated in Santa Barbara

  14. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    With term limits, most state legislators are ciphers to their constituents. I don’t know that their campaigning would have made much difference.

    While a constitutional convention is an excellent idea, the organization of it would be highly problematic with the crazy quilt of groups all calling for wildly different versions of fundamental change. Look at the assortment of cranky ideas and fantasies floating around now.

    Incidentally, does anyone know how one would be called?

  15. avatar Dana Gabbard says:

    Bill, Article 18 of the state Constitution lays out the process:

    SEC. 2. The Legislature by rollcall vote entered in the journal, two-thirds of the membership of each house concurring, may submit at a general election the question whether to call a convention to revise the Constitution. If the majority vote yes on that question, within 6 months the Legislature shall provide for the convention.

    Delegates to a constitutional convention shall be voters elected from districts as nearly equal in population as may be practicable.

  16. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    Yes. So, no solutions, even if the thing could be pulled together, for more than a year and a half, at best …

  17. avatar Anonymous says:

    Is there something that prevents pasting into the comments form?

  18. avatar Roberts and Trounstine says:


  19. avatar Roberts and Trounstine says:

    For details on how the Bay Area Council envisions calling a constitutional convention you can go to: http://tinyurl.com/o8dyvb

  20. avatar Anonymous says:

    I remember the “fire and brimstone” when property taxes were raised (actually, most of the time they played with $/1000$ of assesed value) with only a simple majority. For all of you people with a short memory, that is why prop 13 passed in the first place. You will never be able to return to that place again.

  21. avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow, such a lot of whining about the SOS website. I’ve never had trouble finding what I’m looking for, and I didn’t have any trouble last night. I like the maps — they don’t matter much when the whole state votes one way, but when there are issues/candidates that split the vote, it’s interesting to see. As for design — yeah, it’s so tough to click on “Election Results” when you are looking for Election Results.

  22. avatar Dana Gabbard says:

    A convention has no value for the present crisis. And could even produce a gridlock of different interests pushing various agendas. Might not be an avenue worth travelling…

  23. avatar Anonymous says:

    This guy is delusional. The 2/3 requirements was enacted in 1978 (Prop 13) by 66% of the population. Prop 56 in 2004 that would have lowered it to 55% was defeated by 66%. 1A had funding of 19 million pro and 2 million against. 1A lost in every single county in the state including San Francisco and Alameda County. Statewide it lost by 66%.

    Hear this. The SUPER-Majority has said NO! If nothing else, considering the anti 1A group was out spent by a factor of 10.

    I ask you… Who are the little people.. It’s not the Teachers union who alone spent 4 times the amount the entire No campaign did.

    I dare you to put another 50% tax prop on the 2010 ballot.. IT WILL BE DEFEATED BY 66% OR MORE!

    A constitutional convention is flat out illegal. you can’t raise taxes.. the people have spoken.. HEAR THEM

  24. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    Well, no, a constitutional convention is not illegal, yet another Anonymous. (And the rest of your analysis, which I don’t care enough about to discuss, is very flawed.)

    Con-con’s also not a panacea.

    I think we should try it.

    But know that it couldn’t actually do anything for a couple of years, and might be so beset with contradictory impulses that it achieves nothing.

    In the meantime …

  25. avatar Anonymous says:

    Post-partisanship was made up, just like Arnold Blackwood.

    A convention is just another punt, instead of the Legislature dealing with reality.

  26. avatar Anonymous says:

    ONE WAG [that wag would be me] opined that most of what passes for government these days is a nautious “rice bowl theory of bureaucratic inertia” — meaning: Every one in government and outside government always needs their rice bowl filled. In CA, most get that — and we call that inertia. CA is incapable of reforming itself; it is – frankly speaking – beyond hope; and perhaps “The [next] Big One” would clear those decks sufficiently to effect the change needed – at all levels (Up/Down/Side-ways/To/Fro), etc., ad nauseum.

  27. avatar Anonymous says:

    Let me get this straight: KCRA-TV [Channel 3 in our state capital city] had the election results as the fifth{?} story! Is Stan Atkinson still the anchor there? BRING BACK MURRAY WESTGATE — it was Murray with help of some state college political demographers who literally “pioneered” the concept of precinct post-election sampling by interviews of those willing to be interviewed after first having cast votes. That was the General Election of November, 1962(!) and I was the State Capitol Correspondent reporting from the AP wire service offices as election results were being sent to newspapers statewide for the next day’s editions. The experiment was a huge success, Murray was hated by his colleagues for the genius of the concept, but the Kelly Brothers’ stations [am/fm/tv] were the talk of the state as a result of their many successes.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.