Reform Won’t Cut It; We Need Legislators With Guts


By Gary Delsohn
Special to Calbuzz

Some very smart people, many of them friends of mine, have created a cottage industry arguing that California is in desperate need of political reform.

We’ve seen books, opinion page essays, incessant blogging and groups like California Forward offer insightful analyses about the laundry list of structural fixes needed to stop the constant bickering and budget crises that paralyze the Capitol year-in, year-out.

We even have a European billionaire talking about reform who seems to have captivated the media and other good government folks, not for anything he’s done or proposed, but because he’s so rich he likes to fly around the world in his jet and live in posh hotel suites instead of residing in any one place.

Of course, we need a tax code that reflects our 21st Century economy, one that is more broadly based and is not held hostage to the vagaries of Wall Street.

Sure, we need fair, competitive elections and honestly drawn legislative districts.  We need to ditch term limits, or at the very least refine them, so we can again have a legislature with wise old hands.

Everyone knows the state is not well served when self-serving lobbyists and consultants are better informed and more experienced than our legislators.

It would be nice if we could count on legislators to spend no more than the state takes in, but since we cannot, we also need a spending cap like the one already slated for the 2012 ballot.

These will all help future governors and legislators do their jobs more effectively.  Maybe we even need some of the other reforms floating around like pay-as-you-go and two-year budgeting.

But none of these will fix our state.

What California needs more than anything else are elected officials with — to use a polite term — guts and vision.

How about Democrats willing to stand up to the public employee labor unions?  Democrats who will tell their labor donors without equivocation that California can no longer afford overly generous pensions and other lifetime benefits.

We need those same Democrats to tell the unions, “Sure you hate privatizing even the most obscure state service, but that’s too bad.  California is broke. We need to be more efficient and competitive.  If you don’t like it, vote me out of office.  This is about saving our state, not your union.”

We need Republicans with the courage to act as adults about the state’s revenue crisis and not be intimidated by what right-wing radio shows or the Flash Report will say if they do the right thing. Because every Republican in the Legislature who is intellectually honest knows you cannot solve a $25 billion budget shortfall by cuts alone.  Unless, of course, you want to decimate state government.

We need the same Republicans to wake up and realize California’s environment is arguably its most precious asset, so stop scheming to undermine or delay every piece of legislation that seeks to protect and enhance it.

No constitutional convention, initiative or reform love-in will give us any of those kinds of politicians. We need our elected officials to rise to the occasion, show some guts and vision and do what’s best for the state, not what’s best for their political parties or resumes.

The media have an important role to play here, too. It requires more than just parroting what the zealots say under the guise of fair reporting.

When Yvonne Walker, head of SEIU’s Local 100 tells a Sacramento TV reporter after Gov. Brown’s state of the state speech that Gov. Schwarzenegger declared war on state workers because he needed an enemy, which she did, it would be nice if the reporter knew enough or cared enough to push back.

All that was needed was a simple, “But the state’s broke. Social services and programs for the needy are being axed. Taxpayers are paying more. If California is busted, don’t state workers have to expect some cuts, too?”

It’s not difficult to see the outline of a deal that can be struck between Gov. Brown’s quite reasonable proposed budget solution of cuts and taxes and Republicans’ unreasonable no-tax obsession.

Approve the cuts and tax extensions that Brown has proposed, craft lasting pension reform and some honest regulatory relief for business that gets the state’s economy out of the deep freeze. Then have Democrats and Republicans stand together to explain it to voters.

Compared to what we’re watching as people sacrifice their lives to fix broken governments in the rest of the world, this is small potatoes.

And I’m sorry, the need for civil discourse notwithstanding, we should not even be talking about the goofy notion of countering Brown’s proposed tax package with an alternative proposal to cut taxes by the same amount.

I spent seven years at the Capitol — four as a reporter for the Sacramento Bee and three as Gov. Schwarzenegger’s chief speechwriter — and that idea is as lame as it gets.

Brown was right when he said, “Further tax cuts take us further down the road. You got to get real here. Don’t say, ‘I’m going to solve this problem by creating a whole bunch of newer problems.'”  The tax cut idea is childish and counter-productive.

My fondest hope for California is that we continue the reform momentum we have seen the past few years.  But it will never take the place of leaders with backbone who are willing to make the tough, unpopular decisions our current state of affairs require.

Those people need to step up and be heard right now.

Gary Delsohn, a private media consultant, is a former reporter for the Sacramento Bee who served as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief speech writer from 2006 to 2009. He is currently working with Schwarzenegger on a variety of writing projects.

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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar hclark says:

    Years of stalemated budgets, relieved by giveaways to Republican constituents, created this mess and perhaps Mr. Delsohn is seeking forgiveness. I do know that as a member of my public union bargaining team I’m only being given a choice of where I want the cuts, not if I want them. Also, please don’t include the majority of members with the few top officials who get the golden handshakes. We average less than 24k a year and the majority workers at my district are part timers whose insurance premiums often take the majority of the net. As for contracting out, the reality here is that with our leaner crew, our production often is better in both quality and quantity than that of the outside contractors.

  2. avatar jamessyl1 says:

    It’s easy to tell that Gary Delsohn worked for the Governator. He’s convinced that if only people would act like he wants them to, everything would be fine, but people act they way they want to. Everything he says we need to do, we really should do. But the structural problems got us here, and they’ll bring us here again if we don’t fix them! We need to do much more.

    Our Constitution is a mess; adopted in 1879, it has been amended nearly 400 times, and is one of the longest and most contradictory in the world. Spawned by Progressive distrust of politicians, the initiative process put legislative power in the hands of the voters, and over the years –about 100 of them–we have enacted nearly 400 amendments, many of them shackling the hands of our elected legislators and some of them open to contradictory interpretations.

    Enacted by a direct vote of the people, many of them, especially in the last several years, have been passed by special interests using massively funded advertising campaigns to sway public opinion. We simply bypass our legislators, rendering them useless. This may work well in a small town in Vermont, but has been disastrous in a state with 38 million very diverse people, and is against our American ideal of indirect democracy. We tell our representatives what to do by our votes, and then let them work out the details.

    It’s a good idea to distrust politicians, but the solution is NOT to tie their hands, but to watch them carefully. Anyone for a free and diligent press?

    What we need are politicians who are leader, not opinion poll followers, who will take positions and defend and explain them. (Are you listening, Jerry?) Aided by that diligent media that I long for, this would spark a vigorous debate that could lead to serious change, including a new, 21st century, constitution.

    It is said that the public is apathetic and not interested in politics. But we’re not, we are just fed up with and tired of what goes on in Sacramento. Does anyone remember the weeks long fuss over Doris Allen’s hair do, after she became Willie Brown’s surrogate in the Speaker’s chair? That was what started the Keystone Cops atmosphere in the State House that hasn’t really gone away.

  3. What I’m about to suggest is not an attempt at humor. It’s merely my own view – and here it is. Where is the reward for legislators who go against their supporters and make painful choices? What system exists to protect those who really do the “right thing”. Where will the voted-out-of-office legislators with backbone find their next job? It doesn’t mean a lot to keep suggesting that legislators simply do the right thing, regardless of the consequences to them, without providing them with some advantage. After all these are not citizen politicians, they’re career politicians and work in a system we created. Those who feel solutions are needed should apply their energies to answering some of these questions. Otherwise they’re simply asking some to slit their own throats, and for most, it’s not going to happen.

    • avatar Lord Schmoo says:

      Desert Observer is spot on, at least in principle. The problem, of course, is two-fold: defining the “right thing” and the essence of democracy itself. In the first, the Jarvis folks would define it as resisting any tax hike to the death, regardless of consequences. The anti-immigrant people would only be satisfied with mass deportations and the Army patrolling the border. And that’s only a taste of the crazed zealotry disguised as a commitment to the “right thing.” Should they get “some advantage” because of their brave stand against those American-hating liberals? In the second, our legislators get elected because enough people who think like them bother to vote. Gerrymandering, naturally, has enforced this, and we can only hope we can get some sort of electoral fairness so more moderate candidates can get elected. Anyway, “Some advantage” only makes some more equal than others.

  4. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Though it’s a one-liner sort of slipped in the middle, please note that Mr. Delsohn has once again proposed the much reviled and discredited idea of a spending cap. Colorado tried this and it was a complete failure. When it was last proposed in California, by the late, unlamented Schwarznegger, Colorado was in the process of trying to overturn theirs.

    While Mr. Delsohn has a point that the proposition process has made rather a mess of things, I believe that’s because monied interests have hijacked the process for their own benefit. To take one of the more famous examples, proposition 13 was sold as a way to make sure retirees didn’t lose their homes to rising taxes. Younger readers will have to trust me here. I remember the commercials quite well. However, while that was a side benefit, the “people” who really saved big bucks were not older homeowners. They were corporations. The 2/3 provision made it so the Assembly couldn’t raise taxes on them–everything from oil extraction taxes to higher corporate rates. And the lower property taxes had a much bigger payday for them than for retirees–especially since their real-estate holdings turn over far less often than the average house.

    I do think there is a problem with some public employees gaming the system, especially the pension system. And that needs to be fixed. But it should not be “fixed” on the backs of rank-and-file public employees. The average school teacher or police officer is not the problem.

    But, if we really want to fix what’s wrong with California government, we’ll find a way to kick big corporate interests out of it.

  5. avatar patwater says:

    The reform movement would do well to heed Delsohn’s point. It’s not enough to just to change the rules of the game. How the people play the game actually matters.

    Of course, in California with our lovely system of direct democracy the voting public is just as much part of the game as the Sac town gang. The California people themselves also need to show leadership and answer the call to put “California First.”

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