California has never been far from crisis, but this time feels different say Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in their new book, "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It" (University of California Press).
What makes this crisis seem different is that "at the heart of (this) civic moment is the fear that California lacks even a language, and an understanding, equal to its calamity."
But their under 200-page book offers just that: to their children and to "other vexed parents ... a narrative and a language to understand California's crisis; a set of ideas to meet it; and our optimism that, if not our children, then some other sons and daughters of California will rise to the moment."
California's government has never quite worked, Mathews and Paul contend. But we've always had a kind of luck — a steady inflow of people and cycles of wealth creation, so that "by the time anyone bothered to suggest how to fix the state, [it] had become a larger, newer, and richer state."
But that luck is about to change. Our population will still grow, but primarily by the maternity ward, not in-migration. If "trends hold, by the year 2040 a majority of California's middle-aged citizens will be native to their state."
In other words, "California must find some way to govern itself, because, for the first time, Californians must save themselves."
To explain our calamity, Mathews and Paul begin broadly: We have three systems of government operating on two contradictory principles. They are: (1) a Legislature sometimes operating by majority rule; (2) a Legislature required by a "constitutional web of rules" to operate by supermajority (two-thirds) on the most "polarized" subjects — taxes and spending; and (3) an initiative process ("Propositions") operating by majority rule to override the supermajority principle. The result is "political schizophrenia." It's not that our government isn't working — it's that it can't.
There's no simple answer to how we got into this mess, but a key cause has been our famous Proposition 13, which in 1978 gave us the "two-thirds rule" for the Legislature (and local governments) to increase revenue. This, combined with a flood of other propositions, has undermined the Legislature's ability to decide our biggest issues.
The result is a vicious "cycle of contempt" — the public sees the Legislature as ineffective so it passes more and more propositions, which in turn make the Legislature even more ineffective. As a former state senator described it: We tie the hands of legislators then complain that they're acting as if their hands are tied, so we punish them by tying their hands tighter.
Proposition 13's greatest damage might have been to local governments — gutting their taxing and spending authority and shifting power to Sacramento, an irony that conservative opponents of "big government" came to accept only because they hated taxes even more.
This defies common-sense principles of government: the duty to run a program should be assigned to the proper level of government, and with the duty should come the revenue needed to run it.
Yet another irony was Proposition 13's role in growing the now-outsized influence of public-employee unions: centralizing power in Sacramento gave the unions convenient "one-stop shopping" for lobbying and negotiating.
But Proposition 13 remains a sacred cow. Conservatives cry "Murder!" at proposals to change it, ending any conversation. Yet Proposition 13 was many things: a uniform property-tax rate; a cap on assessment increases; a ban on real-estate transfer taxes.
Mathews and Paul believe that "It is possible to have the best of Prop. 13 — the insurance policy to keep inflation from driving up property taxes beyond homeowners' ability to pay — while changing the ... system that has weakened local control" and shackled the Legislature.
What is the fix? On the ballot this fall will be more initiatives, some of them an attempt at reform. They would tinker with the budget process and grant local governments more control over local money. But these, Mathews and Paul think, would do little to change our government's three-headed system of contradictions.
What's really needed is structural, systemic reform, what they call a "Great Unwinding."
True structural reform would integrate our three systems into one that is responsive to voters and clearly accountable for results. This would include changing the way we choose a legislature: rather than winner-take-all elections in single-member districts, we could have a proportional representation system that would be much more responsive to voter choice (See www.newamerica.net/publications/policy/remapping_nation_without_states).
Rather than gridlock-causing supermajority rules for budget and tax decisions, we could have a system that "allows for risk taking and prompt governance." And in place of an initiative process that recklessly circumvents the Legislature, we could have a redesigned one that still preserves citizen "say" and puts pressure on legislators. (See www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-mathews19-2009oct19,0,6083414.story).
Obviously, all of this is a very heavy lift.
And probably the only way to do it is through a constitutional convention, which is another discussion. Early this year the Bay Area Council's push for a convention went far but ran out of steam (money). For the moment the convention "movement" is leaderless, but there are people and groups around the state ready to band together for another push.
Some may think this is quixotic tilting at windmills. But doing nothing is not an option — Palo Alto and California won't be lucky forever. As Carey McWilliams wrote, California needs citizens who can "see beyond its mountains [and] realize that, as with all good things, there comes a time when the gold runs out."
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