By Fred Keeley
Special to Calbuzz
If not the most devalued word in the English language, “reform” must be in the top 10.
From our governor, to individual and creative mixings and matchings of legislators from both houses and parties, through the news and editorial pages of the last remaining daily newspapers published in California, to a wide assortment of good-doing non-profits and foundations, the Age of Reason (followed by the Era of Irony) seems to have given way to the Time of Reform.
The call for “reform” is even coursing through that “series of tubes,” as Alaska’s former Sen. Theodore “Ted” Stevens once so eloquently labeled the Internet.
Reform health care, the financial system, public education, U.S. foreign policy, (enter your first, second, or third personal favorite here) policy. And especially that mess we still refer to as the governance of California.
Given that I have not had an original thought in my life, and given the vast amount that has been said and written about the challenges of California’s governance by folks way smarter than me, I will simply stipulate that whatever anyone has to say about what is broken, I agree.
That, of course is where agreement ends and the debate about reform begins. And, since Calbuzz is giving me the opportunity to fulminate about my personal favorites, here goes.
Perhaps I have just been around former Speaker Robert Miles Hertzberg too much, but my initial impulse here is to try to quantify that which cannot be measured.
Two months into that unpleasantness remembered as the energy crisis, then-Speaker Hertzberg said to his leadership team: “If there are going to be 100 units of pain visited on the people of California because of this crisis, and we do everything right and reduce that by 40 units; nonetheless, we will always be remembered as the legislature than visited 60 units of pain on the people.” (Yes, he actually uses words like nonetheless in conversation.)
If there are 100 units of broken governance, then I’ll charge 35 of those to the people we elect to serve in the Legislature and in state constitutional offices, especially the governor. The other 65 units are the broken pieces of governance we can call the wiring instructions for contemporary California democracy.
If the problem was really about who we elect, then certainly either Gray Davis or Arnold Schwarzenegger would have to have been placed in our history’s “successful” category.
Davis would be high on your list if your belief system tells you that to succeed in California’s complex and expensive executive branch, we need a person with significant public-sector executive experience.
Alternatively, you’d run Schwarzenegger’s flag up your pole if your belief system says that we really need a strong, independent, self-made type to run a tight, lean, efficient service delivery system.
Sadly, despite all of their varied talents, and their hopes and aspirations for themselves and all of us, the best we will probably be able to honestly say about them is that they meant well.
Sure, Gray moved the dial on ocean protection and a few other important topics. And, fantastically, Arnold’s lasting legacy will be the great degree to which he moved the dial on global climate change policy.
The problem is less who we send into the machinery of Sacramento, than the tools we lend to the governor and 120 legislators following their election. We have a broken 2009 Chevy and our mechanic has tools to fix Henry Ford’s Model T.
It doesn’t matter how smart, sincere or dedicated these electeds are: if they only have governing tools from the 19th and mid-20th centuries, they will fail. So if we want to be able to hold our elected leaders accountable, we have to make sure they have the tools to do the job.
There are all kinds of ideas about reform in the public arena. Two of the most visible at the moment are California’s Forward’s initiatives on state budget process and local government revenue protection, and the Bay Area Council’s proposal for a constitutional convention. (Full disclosure: I am a founding and still-serving member of California Forward’s “Leadership Council,” which should more modestly be called a board of directors, because that’s what it is.)
The co-chairs of California Forward are the aforementioned Bob Hertzberg, and Tom McKernan, leader of the Southern California Automobile Association. They have worked in good faith with all manner of powerful men and women, at a sustained high velocity, informed by constant and very real community outreach and civic literacy strategies, to produce two essential reforms of California’s existing, out-dated, poorly performing, chronically late and unsatisfying budget process.
California Forward’s product is that which survived a gauntlet-running which did not, mercifully, sand off every hard edge. While any reform effort that hopes to have a shot at electoral victory must work with everyone, the final product must stand for something (or a bunch of somethings, held together by coherent values).
California Forward’s reform product offers tools to build a very different and positive governance structure built on the best of the state’s populace-based constitution. The major features include: a bit longer fiscal planning horizon; more accountability imposed on both the executive and legislative branches, and obliging the legislature’s majority party to work constructively with the governor to produce a timely and more financially sustainable budget.
The other reform energy center is the popular notion of a constitutional convention.
According to polling, a substantial and impressive percentage of likely voters really likes this idea. The existing constitution would be amended to add “some assembly required” language — stuff like how the delegates are selected, what they could make decisions about and what can make it back out to us, as voters who would have to ratify any notions advanced from the convention. There are powers long ago, awkwardly etched into our state constitution which is ever-growing, increasingly less inspiring and much in need of – dare we say it? — reform.
Either of these ways of getting to the place where there is a spirited debate and decision by the voters is an outstanding idea. The difference between the two is the difference between substance and form. This is not a comparative judgment of either. They are not the same.
Cal Forward is pushing substantive proposals flowing from the contemporary state of agreement regarding meaningful budget and fiscal reform of the miserable budget process we all seem to loath.
The Bay Area Council’s Con-Con proposal is about form and it takes more time. It may (or may not) produce the same or similar set of budget and fiscal reforms. The Con-Con could give us a better outcome, or not.
It’s not as if we’ve had about all the reform we can take. It seems more like we ain’t getting enough. Let’s get on with all of it.
Fred Keeley is the elected County Treasurer of Santa Cruz County. He is also a member of the Leadership Council of California Forward. A former legislator from Santa Cruz, he also teaches at San Jose State University and Pacific Collegiate School, a public charter school.