Calbuzz Classic: Why California Doesn’t Work


It was two years ago this week that we published our first meta-analysis about how California politics and governance got so screwed up.  A few things have changed for the better since then: voters approved the new jungle primary system, which might improve the quality of the Grover-bot ideologues who keep showing up in Sacramento, and the state’s new redistricting commission appears to have added more than a dozen new competitive districts to the political terrain.

But the big beacon of hope from back then, a proposed constitutional convention that would allow Californians to redesign government from scratch, turned into a major flop, and all the big talk from California Forward reformers proved to be a case study of the elephant giving birth to the mouse. Bottom line: the current partisan stand-off over spending in Sacramento sadly, doesn’t look all the different under Jerry Brown than under the disgraced and discredited Arnold Schwarzscandal. Here’s why.

A few hours after California voters approved his Proposition 13 tax-cut measure on June 6, 1978, a bibulous and exultant Howard Jarvis dropped his pants for the benefit of a few reporters gathered in his suite at the L.A. Biltmore.

A reporter had asked Jarvis why he was limping, so his ostensible reason was to show a large, ugly bruise, which he’d suffered in a fall a few days before, on his ample, boxer-clad behind.

The surprise gesture, however, also afforded the earthy and profane Jarvis a chance to display his contempt for the press and, by extension, the political class that had mocked him and opposed his cherished measure.

Thirty years later, the ghost of Jarvis and his legacy initiative still aim antipathy, scorn and disdain at California’s government and its leaders.

Proposition 13 was the first, and most far-reaching, in a cascade of political decisions over the last three decades that have shaped the thoroughly dysfunctional structure of governance in the state.

Simply put, California today is ungovernable.

As state and local officials struggle to weather a fiscal crisis that threatens to drive California into insolvency, they wield power with the damaged machinery of a patchwork government system that lacks accountability, encourages stalemate and drifts but cannot be steered.

In this system, elected leaders carry responsibility, but not authority, for far-reaching policies about public revenues and resources. That’s not governance — it’s reactive management of a deeply flawed status quo.

Here is a look at six key factors that have made California impossible to govern.

Proposition 13: The fiscal effect of Proposition 13 itself is only part of the damage the initiative did to California. Even worse have been the methods Capitol politicians devised to try to lessen the measure’s financial impact.

After Proposition 13 passed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-dominated Legislature realigned — “tangled” would be more accurate — the relationship between state and local governments by effectively shifting control of remaining property tax revenue to Sacramento.

In a crisis atmosphere, they radically transformed California’s political landscape, taking power and responsibility for health, welfare, schools and other local services away from city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, thereby establishing today’s chaotic maze of overlapping jurisdiction, which defies efforts at accountability.

Budget initiatives: Proposition 13 also ushered in an era of ballot-box budgeting, as fiscal initiatives became a favored special-interest tool to take control of public fund expenditures.

A series of post-13 initiatives — including measures creating the lottery, financing public schools by mathematical formula and earmarking revenues for special programs, from mental health to medical care — established an exquisitely complex state budget calculus that has hamstrung the rational operations of government.

Gerrymandering: The once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps based on the census has created an increasingly partisan and polarized Capitol atmosphere.

Reapportionment has become essentially an incumbent protection effort, as lawmakers craft districts for themselves that are either safely Democratic or safely Republican. In this way, the crucial contests are party primaries, not the general elections. Because primaries draw the most partisan voters, the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats tend to win the nominations that guarantee election in November.

The dynamic locks in ideological polarization in Sacramento, where lawmakers have little motivation to compromise.

Term limits: Despite the claims of backers, the 1990 term-limits initiative did not get rid of career politicians — it simply changed the arc of their careers. Instead of spending decades in the same Assembly or Senate district seat, legislators now begin to position themselves for the next office — or job as a lobbyist — as soon as they arrive in Sacramento.

The up-or-out system rewards short-term, self-interested political thinking more than long-term policy-making in the public interest. Term limits also make lobbyists, not the Legislature, the repository of Capitol policy expertise; that lobbyists are happen to be useful in raising campaign cash adds an overlay of soft corruption to the process.

Boom or bust taxation: Since Proposition 13, state government has become increasingly dependent on volatile sources of revenue — the sales, corporation and progressive personal income taxes — that generate annual shifts in tax collections corresponding closely to the business cycle.

When economic times are good, as during the dot-com and housing bubbles, money pours in and there’s little political incentive — in fact, term limits creates a perverse disincentive — for long-term financial planning.

When revenues contract, the Capitol has rarely made real spending reductions, preferring to wait for the next boom.

The two-thirds vote: California is one of only three states requiring a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget, one of 16 requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes — and the only state to require both.

The budget requirement has been in the Constitution since the New Deal; the tax restriction began with Proposition 13. In the polarized atmosphere of Sacramento, the two-thirds rules effectively hand a veto to the minority party. Under these conditions, stalemate and deadlock on key fiscal issues have become the political norm.

So what can be done about the dysfunction? In the next few weeks, a blue-ribbon commission is set to recommend sweeping changes in the tax system to stabilize revenue collections. Voters last fall approved Proposition 11, which takes away the Legislature’s power to draw its their own districts in favor of an independent commission.

Next year, as they elect a new governor, Californians also will vote on a system of “open primary” elections aimed at aiding moderates, and they also will probably decide on one or more initiatives to dump the two-thirds budget vote requirement.

California Forward, a bipartisan good government group financed by major foundations, is crafting proposals to conform government systems and processes to modern management methods. And the business-oriented Bay Area Council is pushing initiatives for a state constitutional convention, the first since 1879, to wipe the slate clean and build a new, rational structure for state government.

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

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar North of US says:

    If the extension to maintain existing taxes does not materialize then Governor Brown will have no choice but to lay off workers and shut down state services. I suggest that he furlough any and all state capitol workers and shut off the lights at the capitol. When the air conditioning stops working and the lights go out and no security is available perhaps the legislators will have a real sense of the damage they are creating in the state.

  2. avatar smoker1 says:

    Imagine another state with budget problems (like, most states) and you suddenly give them our sales tax rate, our income tax rates and our property tax rates (including our property values). Most of those budget problems would evaporate. So why is it so hard to balance our budget? The majority party says its a lack of revenue, but I don’t believe it.

  3. avatar ReilleyFam says:

    “Next year, as they elect a new governor, Californians also will vote on a system of “open primary” elections…”


    Put down the pipe stoners!

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Hey ReillyFam – Please see first sentence – “It was two years ago this week.” Who’s smoking what?

  4. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Kudos to Calbuzz. You nailed the issues. Solutions in the next installment?

  5. avatar tegrat says:

    CA’s tax rates are demonstrably regressive once you figure in the federal offset. Of course, chances of changing this are nil under the current system. If the Dems managed to squeek out a 2/3 majority in both houses thanks to re-districting we might see some changes for the better. A legislative initiative to fix prop 13 would be a start.

  6. avatar OC Progressive says:

    Is this going to become an annual feature like Art Buchwald’s Thanksgiving story or that godawful NPR cranberry relish with horseradish?

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