Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dan Walters: California's wakeup call

This has been a year that most Californians and especially those in elected office would wish never happened, a year of severe economic decline that pushed hundreds of thousands onto the unemployment rolls, and a year of monumental, ever-growing and intransigent budget deficits.

California's civic issues are not improving with age. In a state that grows and changes very rapidly, doing nothing means falling behind, and we've seen regression in water supply, environmental quality, economic prosperity, government finance, transportation and education, to name but a few obvious ills.

We've also seen the civic erosion of a boom-and-bust economy, the defense/aerospace boom of the 1980s crashing into what was, up to now, the worst recession in a half-century in the early 1990s, and the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s bursting shortly after the turn of the millennium, followed by the ongoing meltdown in the housing and banking sectors.

California desperately needs to return to an even economic keel, not only so we can pursue our lives and careers with some degree of confidence, but so that our politicians won't be tempted to overspend the windfalls of revenues that those periodic booms generate, leading to even more long-term budget problems.

If, however, there is a silver lining, 2008 may be the year in which Californians began to realize that their governmental/political structure is broken and that continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result is, as Albert Einstein once observed, the essence of insanity.

It's the year that the state's voters, after rejecting reform of the state's inane system of redrawing legislative districts umpteen times, finally adopted a less than perfect shift of redistricting to an independent commission.

It's the year in which months of stalemate on the deficit-ridden state budget produced a wavelet of proposals for changing the state's bound-to-fail system of writing budgets.

It's the year when, after decades of stasis and crisis, we saw what may be a fresh approach to the collection and distribution of water, arguably California's most vexing issue.

It's the year that a constitutional convention to overhaul California's government became a hot topic of debate in political, academic and media circles.

These, however, are merely baby steps on what could be a very long journey toward aligning our system of making public policy with our unique social, economic and political mélange, an overhaul that should trade narrow interests and gridlock for broad policies and accountability that we so sorely need.

The question, of course, is whether the reality jolt we got this year will, indeed, produce a more mature approach to our economy and the governmental services it finances or whether, as we have done so often, we will simply blank out the memory as we wallow in the temporary bounty of the next boom, whatever and whenever it may be.

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.