Why budget disaster may save California

California is broke, its elected officials are paralyzed in mortal fear of making tough decisions, and the people are angry.


Total system failure may be the only thing that can save California

I’m a father of two native Californians and a nearly lifelong resident of the state. I visit my state parks and beaches regularly, and I’m disappointed that most of them seem set to close. I believe that government is an appropriate tool for addressing some of California’s biggest issues. So, how can I believe that mess we’re in now is good?

It’s good because utter failure may be the only thing that can possibly snap California out of some long-cherished illusions and eventually set it back on a path toward government that is efficient, appropriate and responsible.

Let’s be clear about this. No matter what short-term steps the state takes to keep itself in business, including the measures Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to discuss before a joint session of the California Legislature Tuesday, to a lot of people are going to be hurt. Consider yourself lucky if the only pinch you feel is that your favorite state park closes or starts charging a fee – and spare some thought for those whose families will see diminished opportunities for work, education and health.

California’s leaders and voters must take this crisis as an opportunity to disillusion themselves from the idea that the problems with the state’s budget and governance are temporary, and the mistaken belief that once we round the next corner everything will be fine. As painful as the coming budget cuts will be, greater harm would come from refusing to face up to the fact that the state’s structures for gathering income, spending funds and agreeing on a budget completely fail to serve the needs of Californians.

I don’t share anti-tax groups’ confidence that the only possible reading of May’s special election vote is a mandate for big cuts in state services, or the liberal interpretation that voters were rejecting spending limits. I think it just as likely that voters’ rejection of the proposed budget “solutions” reflects a simple annoyance that they were asked to make the decisions they elected other people to make.

But the reality is that we cannot deny the state government income while also demanding it provide a high level of service. The reality is that we have created a system that encourages elected officials to duck responsibility and dodge compromise in favor of pushing decisions onto the voters who put them in office. The reality is that until California examines itself under a very bright light, it will continue to operate in a fantasy of vain hopes and fake fixes.

Eight questions for California

California must address some questions at the foundation of the state’s problem with governance. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, and it’s possible that we can fix our state by addressing only some of these issues. But all of these matters bear strongly on California’s ability to govern itself and to find the level of services and costs that Californians really want.

  1. Does California need a full-time Legislature? Often, laws proposed in the Legislature can’t gain enough support to pass as they are first written. In most law-making bodies, this is when legislators alter their proposals to make them acceptable to more of their colleagues, or offer to exchange support of an opponent’s proposals for support of their own. In California, however, many times these failed proposals are simply kicked to the voters in the hope that political campaigning can achieve what compromise could not. This isn’t a problem with the people who hold office today, it’s a problem with the system. If legislators are unable or unwilling to fulfill their basic function of making law through debate and compromise, why pay them for a full-time job when they only do part of the work?

  2. Is California’s system of voter initiatives doing more harm than good? According to a new survey conducted by students at the University of California, Riverside, voters still favor using ballot initiatives to decide budget matters. Perhaps this means that voters view initiatives as a way to make decisions the Legislature cannot or will not make, an understandable sentiment, but ballot measures are imprecise tools that institute changes that can’t be modified without another vote of the people. If California wants to hang on to this tradition of direct democracy, maybe it’s time for at least a common-sense change to our initiative process to require propositions to deal with only one subject at a time instead of mixing often unrelated issues in the same measure.

  3. Does Proposition 13 still make sense? Prop. 13, which limited increases to property taxes in California, is still an untouchable issue to many state politicians. And indeed, voters may not yet be ready to change it. But more and more Californians have acquired their property long after the proposition passed, and some of them don’t see themselves as sharing the interests of those who still pay property taxes at 30-year-old rates. What we’re doing in California with Prop. 13 is penalizing new investment in the state – new buyers of homes – without producing any gain for the state on the surge in value some owners have realized simply by virtue of having bought a long time ago. Another effect of Prop. 13 that works against the interests of many Californians is the shift it produced in where local governments get their money. Prop. 13 is a big part of the reason so many small to mid-sized municipalities seem to keep building the same retail outlets instead of producing needed housing: Because of the limits on property taxes, local governments can’t get enough money out of new housing to pay for the increased level of services new residents require. In other words, because of Prop. 13, in many cases new housing costs local governments money. Retail development, on the other hand, does allow governments to obtain the necessary funding to support government services.

  4. Are term limits causing more harm than good? I’ve never liked the idea of someone else telling me who to vote for, or when to stop voting for them, so I’ve always opposed term limits. But beyond my philosophical opposition, there are some important reasons why California might want to reconsider its term limits. One is that under our current term limits, legislators know they’ll be moving around so fast it’s unlikely they’ll be held accountable for the decisions they make – or dodge – in any single year. The effort required to build expertise on any given topic of governance and build the consensus required for substantive new laws just doesn’t pencil out for legislators who won’t be in their current office for long.

  5. Are state electoral districts still favoring extreme politics? Last year, voters approved Proposition 11, which created a new method to set the geographic boundaries of state electoral districts. New district lines are expected to be in place for 2012 elections, but it remains to be seen if the new districts will be any more effective than the old in producing lawmakers who can meet in the middle of their ideologies to govern effectively. In the meantime, what’s certain is that we’re still stuck with too many legislators who occupy the far edges of the Republican and Democratic parties.

  6. Is it time to eliminate the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget? The idea of modifying the requirement for a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to approve a state budget is particularly popular among Democratic lawmakers and activists. I don’t oppose a change on ideological grounds, but I think this proposal is looking at California’s problems from the wrong direction. If we change the structures that favor a flaccid and unaccountable Legislature, it’s far less likely the two-thirds vote requirement will be a problem. In any case, that UC Riverside survey found that the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget is still popular among voters.

  7. Is it time to change the requirement that tax increases require a two-thirds vote of the people? As with the two-thirds vote requirement for the Legislature to approve a budget, many on the left are talking about trying to modify the requirement that many taxes require a two-thirds majority approval from voters. I can’t say that I think California’s tax income is always well-spent, and I’m wary of making the leash on new taxes too loose. But when voters decide whether they want low taxes or lots of services, this is one option they might very well choose.

  8. Does California need a constitutional convention? This is the big gun of California reform efforts, and it’s already gathered some good momentum. A constitutional convention would be able to undertake fundamental changes to the most basic structures and systems of California government. I don’t think a constitutional convention is the only possible solution to California’s situation, but it certainly would provide a means to resolve many issues at once and to produce a relatively simple, clear proposal for reform instead of relying on a bunch of disparate plans. In spite of the uncertainty of what kind of new constitution we might end up with, this is one idea California must consider seriously.

What’s your idea to fix California’s broken systems?

I’ve presented a handful of ideas for changing the way California does business, but there are many others out there. Do you have a plan, a solution, a proposal? Leave a comment and join the debate, and if you’re on Twitter, @ me a reply.

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2 Responses to Why budget disaster may save California

  1. terry says:

    some interesting (if less specific) discussion on this topic took place here:


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