Sacto Dysfunction Mirrors Whacko Views of Voters


Just six weeks before Jerry Brown rolls out the long-awaited opening of “Krusty: The Sequel,” the most fundamental problem the new governor faces  is neither the $25 billion state deficit nor the utter  dysfunction of the Capitol: it’s California’s dual personality disorder.

As much as politicians, government geeks and bureaucrats — not to mention “the media” —  get blamed, deservedly, for the mess the state is in, there stands a mountain of evidence showing that the polarized partisan gridlock in Sacramento perfectly reflects the sentiments of the electorate.

The plain fact is that California’s litany of problems is underpinned by an everything-for-nothing ethic among voters that is both conflicted and contradictory.

We first took note of the over-arching importance of this dynamic back before the earth cooled (“Calbuzz: The Prairie Years”) when we analyzed the confounding perspective of the electorate in advance of the disastrous May 19, 2009 special election. In that debacle, Governor Schwarzmuscle and the Democrat-dominated Legislature tried to have it both ways with a series of five initiatives that, variously, raised taxes and imposed some cuts in several popular programs.

But we’d be remiss if we didn’t also call out our fellow voters, who exhibit a maddening syndrome of self-canceling impulses about how to pay for their government.

What do policymakers see when they look at such data? Voters, pointing a gun to their own heads, screaming “Stop, before I shoot!”

This self-destructive, self-canceling world view of voters has grown both more acute and more chronic since then, as illustrated by some new data in  the most recent LA. Times/USC poll.  Among the findings, the survey found that:

–By a huge plurality – 44-6% — voters said they would rather cut spending than raise taxes to address the deficit (another 44% opted from some murky, unspecified combination).

–But by even larger margins, voters said they would either a) not support any cuts or b) favor more spending on K-12 education and health programs – the two largest items in the budget (for schools, 37% oppose reductions and 34% want more spending while 36% are against cuts and 20% want to spend more on health). The only area of the budget where there is strong sentiment for reducing expense is on prisons, where 71% favor cutting a great deal or some of current spending.

–Most troubling of all, by 70-24%, voters said that “there is enough waste and inefficiency in government spending that we can reduce most of the state deficit by cleaning up programs without cutting programs like health care and education” —  the fairy tale scenario that Meg Whitman tried to peddle, ranking up there with Santa showing up with the Great Pumpkin and the Tooth Fairy in tow. That’s how he rolls.

Our friend Joel Fox took a run at the Great Dichotomy the other day over at Fox and Hounds and offered a pretty good succinct synopsis of the problem.

So what to make of the California electorate’s pro-government, no more taxes dichotomy? Can we say that Californians have big hearts and small wallets? Or is something else going on here?

Many people believe in the California Dream. The notion of California as a place of opportunity cuts across demographics and ethnicities and is a thread that binds people in this most diverse of all states. Californians support proposals that will give people access to opportunity. I suspect that is why those polled would support avenues to citizenship and open doors at educational establishments and government programs to give people a hand up.

However, while supporting a basic framework of government support, voters clearly don’t want to pay for too much. Those responding to the survey think they already pay too much when they say the best avenue to a balanced budget is to cut spending.

Voters don’t trust government to deliver the opportunities they believe in… There is a strong sense amongst the electorate that those in government take care of themselves first.

During the campaign, Brown’s big proposal for addressing the budget mess was to lock all the legislators of both parties in a room and browbeat them with sweet reason until everyone agreed on solutions.

As a political matter, that seems to us to be 180 degrees wrong in dealing with the size, scope and depth of the problems the state now faces: Instead of spending his time in backrooms with Sacramento pols, Brown needs to get out of the Capitol and travel energetically around the state, conducting what amounts to a one-man basic civics education campaign, so that Californians truly understand a) what services state government actually provides; b) how much they cost; c) how they’re paid for.

Above all, he needs a full-blown strategy to build a shared public awareness of the simple facts of California’s predicament by breaking through the bumper sticker clichés and well-worn grooves of the political arguments that have straight jacketed California for a generation. Anything else is just tactics.

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There are 12 comments for this post

  1. I suspect that not only do voters not trust government, they don’t trust anyone or anything related to government. Consider these points. Both major political parties appear to be under the control of their most extreme elements and the proof lies in the choice of candidates that come out of the primaries. Many voters consider the legislature under the control of the state employee and other unions. Government employee paychecks top the list of those most highly paid. Politicians and their friends seem to all do well in and after leaving office – look at the plum positions passed out to departing members of the legislature. Why should the question of trust ever appear on the table – it and government are clearly oxymorons. Jerry Brown won’t be able to change this perception. It would take a legislative chamber filled with decent, honest, sincere, public-service-minded, determined, and genuinely committed to doing only the right thing coterie of men and women to accomplish that task. Such a group – even a small one – doesn’t exist within legislative circles. Remember the three golden rules of politics. #1: Get re-elected. #2: A hungry politician is a bad one. Self enrichment is a necessity. #3: Take care of the friends who will take care of you.

    • avatar ReilleyFam says:

      EVERYTHING in CA is more than the National average – it’s called the cost of living in CA. Just compare housing costs alone and any idiot would understand why. The real issue is by CA standards are employees getting more than they deserve or need to survive at a living wage level. Some are, some not. Tired of having CA costs compared to Iowa or some other place where a mansion costs $50K.

    • avatar tegrat says:

      People don’t trust government because they don’t engage in it. We are, after all, the government. Look at anti-government candidate Meg Whitman, who hadn’t even bothered to vote for most of her adult life. The mistrust is projection, pure and simple, and confirmation bias which filters out any evidence regarding the vast achievements of the government and focuses on its failures – which we again would rather bitch about than do anything about it.

  2. avatar tegrat says:

    There is a way forward for cutting spending in healthcare, and that is to enact a single-payer financed healthcare plan in the state. Six years ago a study performed by the Lewin Group demonstrated that the state would save $44 billion over the first ten years (2006-15) in state employee healthcare costs. Californians would save $346 billion and every resident would have access to comprehensive healthcare, including vision, hearing, dental, and mental. Of course those numbers are much higher now. But don’t hold your breath.

    • avatar tegrat says:

      CORRECTION: the state would save $346 billion total in healthcar costs over the ten year period (the $44 billion is just part of those savings)

    • avatar rootvg says:

      If you’re going to do that, you may as well also plan for secession from the Union…because that’s what it would take to implement it without interference from the courts.

  3. avatar Pete Stahl says:

    Nice analysis. I would add that perhaps the largest source of distrust, at least among voters I talk to, is the perception that elected officials work only for the moneyed interests that finance their campaigns, and are utterly out of touch with ordinary citizens. This is reinforced by “Big Five” backroom budgeting, impersonal, media-and-mailbox campaigning, and single-party gerrymanders (going away soon!) that effectively let the party activists who vote in primaries decide elections.

    Heck, I can’t even name my Assemblyman, and I’m sure he’s nothing more than a proxy for the unions, business interests, or whatever funded his campaign.

    Solutions: (1) Citizens Redistricting Commission [check!] (2) Nonpartisan primaries [check!] (3) Simple-majority budget passage to reduce Big Five influence [check!] (4) Public campaign financing [maybe someday] (5) Increase legislature to at least 200 Assembly, 100 Senate to make districts personal again [unlikely soon] (6) [your great idea here]

    • avatar tegrat says:

      To me open primaries are a double-edged sword, and certainly beg the question “why have a general if the primary is open (or rather why bother with the primary)?”. The theory that this elects more “moderates” is, at best, disputable. Again, it seems to be a blunt instrument, like term limits, to cure symptoms rather than the disease itself which is a combination of out of control campaing financing and non-democratic (i.e. supermajority) governance.

  4. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    My polling is not at all scientific. But I do talk to a lot of people about politics. And what I notice is a distinct lack of actual factual information. This is, unfortunately, partly fed by the media that publicizes a few outrageous bonuses and public fraud like what happened in Bell–as they should–but doesn’t give the voting public much balance. For example, I’ve found most people I talk to don’t know that:

    * The majority of public employees make less than they would in private employment. And their pensions are no more generous than they’d get there either.
    * Teachers do not get Social Security and therefore rely on a largely self-funded pension plan. As their employers, we can choose to pay for one or the other. But it will cost something either way. So the only analysis is which is more expensive.
    * Many of the cuts recommended by the foam-at-the-mouth crowd actually cost us money in matching federal funds. In some cases, we make as much as 9 times what we pay from matching funds.
    * Other cuts would cost us money because the alternatives are more expensive. Cutting home health aides raises unemployment. That costs money and lowers economic activity. It also forces the people who depended on those aides into more expensive healthcare alternatives like the ER and nursing homes. Much of those costs will be borne by the state.
    * The Governator already appointed a commission to study waste and fraud in state spending. The savings they found were surprisingly small and have already been implemented. State employees also made suggestions on savings, which have also been done. For example, it actually costs the state less money to sell state buildings and rent them back–at least in the short term. So the state has been doing that for a number of years. How that will play out in the longer term, I don’t know. But I guess we’ll find out.

    I would never say there is no fraud in government spending. Where there’s big money, there’s always the risk that somebody’s greed will gain the upper hand. And the state needs to watch for that. But I’d love to have the media do some big stories about where we actually spend our money, so people could see how much goes to services they want and need. A recent discussion I saw online railed against all the state agencies until somebody pointed out that he wanted pharmacists licensed and water quality monitored. The media should cover how much of that spending is mandated by voter-approved propositions, so people get a true idea of what those cost us–including interest on all the bonds we have to sell to finance them. Which of the budget line items qualify for federal matching funds, and how much of that spending is federally required such as special education.

    In short, I find public knowledge about the California to be dismal. People don’t know how much we pay for anything, or really what the consequences would be if we didn’t. If they did, they’d likely pass fewer propositions that spend money we don’t have. And they might stop yammering about waste and fraud.

    And I’m sorry Pete, but I don’t think your first two solutions will do anything to help with any of this. You could always move to the 27th Assembly district. Then you’d know you had a really good representative in Bill Monning, as I do. Perhaps I’m spoiled because Bill replaced an excellent assemblymember, John Laird. Because I’ve been fortunate enough to be represented by Bill and John, I’m also not a huge fan of term limits. I was sorry to lose John, and will be equally sad to see Bill go. I do, however, recommend that you make an appointment to go meet yours. I did it, and was able to talk to Bill and an aide about an issue that concerned me. If yours won’t meet with you, then you don’t have a good one and should work to replace them in the next election. It’s called democracy and it works if you work it. If you don’t, you have no room to complain.

  5. avatar sqrjn says:

    Most people I talk to don’t agree with me. Anyone who disagrees with me lacks accurate information. Some facts support my beliefs, others I ignore. Its the duty of the media to inform people of the facts that support my beliefs so people will agree with me.

    Democracy works when people know enough to agree with me. Democracy also works when politicians listen to me complain. People who don’t invest as much time as me in complaining have no right to complain.

  6. avatar Kevin Egan says:

    Brown needs to do a massive job of education, including basic civics lessons: e.g. “when the schools in my community educate children from other ethnic groups than my own, I will benefit greatly from that education, even though my own children graduated long ago. In addition, the UC and Cal State systems are a bargain that will make my life much more pleasant in years to come.”

    In order to explain such ethical complexities and also the budgetary complexities (what we want and what it costs; places where cuts might be made or else revenues increased; our current tax load in historical and international perspective), I suggest that Gov. Brown call on the Hollywood creative community. We need the state government version of “An Inconvenient Truth” to turn the tide of opinion; taking the cue from Gore, Brown would do well to develop his own slideshow roadshow and get out and flog it up and down the state, then let a Davis Guggenheim convert it to film. He’s got a great personality for a film like that!

    If you explain things clearly to people, the majority of them are prepared to be reasonable and to make sacrifices for their children’s future; but we get no clear, truthful explanation of state finances in any form we can understand, ever: just lying disinformation in the campaigns, which renders the winner’s term more or less ungovernable.

    If he did the slideshow, if the movie was made, he would be able to generate a critical mass for a realistic budget and investment in the future of the state. It’s never been tried!!! It starts with some thoughtful research and a slide show! How hard could that be???

  7. avatar rootvg says:

    Yes, California will get its bailout. The Feds will have no choice. Yes, the Democratic party and organized labor will end up paying for it politically.

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