State

Six reasons why California today is ungovernable

As state and local officials struggle to weather California's fiscal crisis, they wield power with the damaged machinery of a patchwork government system that lacks accountability, encourages stalemate and drifts but cannot be steered.

In this system, elected leaders carry responsibility, but not authority, for far-reaching policies about public revenues and resources. That's not governance -- it's reactive management of a deeply flawed status quo.

The fact is, California today is ungovernable. Here are six reasons why:

Proposition 13: The fiscal effect is only part of the damage the initiative did to California. Even worse have been the methods politicians devised to try to lessen the measure's impact. After Proposition 13 passed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-dominated Legislature realigned -- "tangled" would be more accurate -- the relationship between state and local governments by effectively shifting control of remaining property-tax revenue to Sacramento.

In a crisis atmosphere, they radically transformed the state's political landscape, taking power and responsibility for health, welfare, schools and other local services away from city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, thereby establishing today's chaotic maze of overlapping jurisdiction, which defies efforts at accountability.

Budget initiatives: Proposition 13 also ushered in an era of ballot-box budgeting, as fiscal initiatives became a favored special-interest tool to take control of public fund expenditures. A series of initiatives -- including ones creating the lottery, financing public schools by mathematical formula and earmarking revenues for special programs, from mental health to medical care -- created a complex budget calculus that has hamstrung the rational operations of government.

Gerrymandering: The once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps has created an increasingly partisan Capitol atmosphere. Reapportionment has become essentially an incumbent protection effort, as lawmakers craft districts that are either safely Democratic or safely Republican. In this way, the crucial contests are party primaries, and because primaries draw the most partisan voters, the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats tend to win the nominations, a dynamic that locks in ideological polarization in Sacramento.

Term limits: The 1990 term-limits initiative did not get rid of career politicians, it simply changed the arc of their careers. Instead of spending decades in the same Assembly or Senate seat, legislators position themselves for the next office, or job as a lobbyist, as soon as they get to Sacramento. The up-or-out system rewards short-term, self-serving political thinking more than long-term policymaking in the public interest. Term limits also make lobbyists, not the Legislature, the repository of Capitol expertise; that lobbyists are useful in raising campaign cash adds an overlay of soft corruption to the process.

Boom-and-bust taxation: Since Proposition 13, state government has become increasingly dependent on volatile sources of revenue -- the sales, corporation and progressive personal income taxes -- that generate annual shifts in tax collections tied closely to the business cycle. When economic times are good, money pours in and there's little political incentive for long-term financial planning. During busts, the politicians rarely make cuts, instead waiting for the next boom.

The two-thirds vote: California is one of only three states requiring a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget, one of 16 requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, and the only state requiring both. The budget requirement has been in the state constitution since the New Deal; the tax restriction began with Proposition 13. In the polarized atmosphere, the two-thirds rules effectively hand a veto to the minority party. Under these conditions, stalemate and deadlock on key fiscal issues have become the political norm.

What can be done? A blue-ribbon commission is about to recommend sweeping changes in the tax system to stabilize revenue collections. Last fall voters passed Proposition 11, which takes away the Legislature's power to draw its own districts. In 2010, Californians will elect a new governor, vote on a system of "open primary" elections aimed at aiding moderates, and most likely decide on one or more initiatives to dump the two-thirds vote requirement. And California Forward, a bipartisan good-government group financed by major foundations, is crafting proposals to conform government systems and processes to modern management methods.

Roberts and Trounstine cover California politics online at calbuzz.com.

  Comments