The party line says California Forward is sailing steadily towards approval of its bipartisan reform agenda for repairing state government, either with a ballot initiative or through a legislative substitute that would satisfy critics on the left and right.
Behind the scenes, however, the group is as broken as the system it proposes to fix.
California Forward last week submitted its signatures for a six-part reform measure on the November ballot. But the proposal, as it stands, is a dead duck: it contains two elements that are toxic to key players among labor, environmentalists, local government and some anti-tax groups. These are what are known as the “pay-go” and “community action plans” provisions.
Whether a function of members’ hubris, slack internal accountability or outsiders’ sudden realization (including the governor’s) that the group’s measure was actually going to make the ballot, California Forward’s “Government Performance and Accountability Act” has run into a perfect storm of opposition. And their one guy who’s supposed to be negotiating with the legislature – former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg — has gotten nowhere.
High-class investigative reporting: On a conference call last week, one member suggested they simply fold their tent right now and accept some short-term embarrassment (but retain a potential future) rather than dragging out the inevitable, which would translate into greater, agonizing humiliation and a widespread conviction that bipartisan reform is simply unattainable.
One Democrat* and two Republicans have already resigned while others are on the verge, another member with ties to Silicon Valley money has said he won’t raise a dime for the measure, and several members have said they’ve been cut out of the decision-making loop by campaign co-chair Sunne Wright McPeak.
Despite some quibbling with specific language, few players in Sacramento have much problem with the portions of California Forward’s measure that would institute performance-based budgeting, a two-year budget, a three-day/72-hour requirement for language of new legislation or creation of a rainy-day fund.
“Pay-go” is another story. Under this provision, in California Forward’s words, “Lawmakers should be required to identify ways to pay for major policy choices, rather than putting all programs at risk of being cut in future years. The proposal requires major new programs and tax cuts costing $25 million or more to have a clearly identified funding source before they are enacted.”
That sounds good on the surface, but labor, social service advocates and others are concerned that because it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise a tax or a fee this would essentially constitute a spending cap and could prevent what they see as needed new programs or stifle spending to restore previous cutbacks.
And environmentalists, in particular, are concerned about the measure’s “Community Strategic Action Plans” which would give local governments the ability to re-allocate local sales and property taxes to fund locally tailored plans to accomplish goals set by the legislature. The concern: that certain local communities would violate the California Environmental Quality Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Act – all in the name of local cost effectiveness.
Some taxpayer groups also are worried that a vote on a spending cap, scheduled for 2012, could get moved back to 2014, and that “pay-go” might also interfere with proposals to cut taxes.
Sunne’s paid posse: After about two years of meeting with every constituency known to man and getting little negative feedback, California Forward began hearing objections as their measure was about to qualify for the ballot and, perhaps co-incidentally, after Gov. Jerry Brown’s people made it know they didn’t want another measure on the ballot competing for voters’ attentions with his own proposal to raise income and sales taxes.
Although they had voted at a meeting in Los Angeles to turn in most – but not all – of their signatures, in hopes that Hertzberg could work out a deal with the legislature to put a measure on the ballot containing only the four widely accepted provisions, McPeak, on advice from her paid consultants (especially Mike Madrid), decided to override that vote and submit all their signatures last week.
Too late to take back the two provisions they now wish they’d never included.
Said Roger Salazar, spokesman for the California Forward Action Fund:
Today [last week], the remaining signatures will be filed to qualify the Government Performance and Accountability Act (GPAA) for the November 2012 ballot. With the pending submission of other statewide initiatives, we are compelled to act to ensure timely compliance with Secretary of State requirements for signature verification.
In the spirit of compromise, we are committed to continuing negotiations with legislative leadership to provide a substitute initiative that includes California Forward’s core reforms, and puts off for another day the “Pay-Go” and “Local Strategic Action Plan” elements. While our research shows that all of the elements in the GPAA enjoy more than 80% of voter support, disagreements continue to exist on some elements of the initiative among important constituencies in California.
To be clear, we have provided the specific provisions of our reform effort that California Forward would agree to as part of a substitute initiative that can be placed on the ballot by a 2/3 vote of the legislature.
The critical elements of our budget reform measure must include:
1. Moving to a two-year state budget cycle.
2. Instituting performance-based budgeting for state and local governments.
3. Reviewing state programs through legislative oversight.
4. Ensuring greater transparency of legislation prior to approval.
We will continue our conversations with state leaders throughout the process.
Bottom line: In other words, California Forward realizes they went too far with their measure and now would like a do-over. But why anyone in the legislature would now negotiate with California Forward is unclear: they played their hand, players are leaving the table with their chips and they’re left holding a four-card flush.
*Another Democrat resigned Monday.