Is California Too Unwieldy To Govern?

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SACRAMENTO - Gray Davis had just landed in Pennsylvania on a trip last June when hewas struck by the differences between that state and the one whosevoters drove him out of office early in his second term, blaming hisleadership for state government failures that included deep debt andlegislative paralysis.

Pennsylvania roads were clean. The state's budget was balanced.Lawmakers had socked enough away in a rainy-day fund to build what wasthen a decent surplus. Government seemed to run effectively.

"It's not like other people can't do this," the former governor said recently.

But California government is arguably more dysfunctional now than it was when Davis, a Democrat, got the boot.The budget deficit has grown so huge that a shutdown of governmentservices looms. Partisan gridlock grips the Legislature, and lawmakersbicker as the state plunges into crisis.

"The recall absolutely hasn't helped at all," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

The state's latest collision course with insolvency has renewed the question in the Capitol: Has California become ungovernable?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ousted Davis with a campaign builton the premise that the state simply needed the right leader, said lastweek that there is only so much he can do to tame Sacramento.

"Look, I'm frustrated," the governor told reporters. "I'm sitting hereand we have a system where we rely on the 120 legislators to make thosedecisions. I cannot make them stay here. I cannot lock them into thebuilding. I don't have those kinds of powers. Believe me, I would do itotherwise."

The governor has no shortage of critics who say the fault lies withhim. If he were a more effective, engaged leader, they charge, thelawmakers would follow.

"There's only 120 people in the state who don't care when ArnoldSchwarzenegger calls them, and it's the members of the Legislature,"said Democratic strategist Jason Kinney. "The fact that he hasforfeited his relationship and influence over the Legislature has hurthim."

Others say this nation-state is so oversized, Balkanized and polarizedthat it is destined for dysfunction no matter who is in charge. Theycite its influx of immigrants, its constant tensions over water supplyand its large, self-contained regions that bear little resemblance toone another.

It has even been suggested that the state should break into multiple,more manageable pieces. More than two dozen attempts at that have beentried over the years, the latest by a Northern California lawmaker inthe early 1990s. More recently, a blog called Three Californias wascreated to advocate carving California out of the union and turning itinto a new country with three states.

The state's Constitution also makes governing a challenge. Californiais one of only three states that require two-thirds of the Legislatureto agree on a budget. A few lawmakers from the minority party canderail a spending plan -- and they do, sometimes to the point ofpreventing the government from paying its bills.

And California's heavy use of the initiative system, intended tolet voters solve problems when lawmakers don't, has created conflictingmandates that experts say undermine rational policymaking.

Some of the political leaders who for years have been engaged inefforts -- largely unsuccessful -- to make state government run betterfret that the current dysfunction creates a fertile environment formore shortsighted ballot measures.

"If this continues, there is the danger that the public will againexpress itself through an initiative or some kind of constitutionalconvention or something that will become a vehicle for their anger withelected leaders," said Leon Panetta, a former California congressmanand White House advisor who co-chairs California Forward, a bipartisanthink tank focused on solving the state's problems. "God knows wherethat will take us. The danger is it will lead to the wrong steps beingtaken."

Panetta said the political process has broken down.

"For whatever reason, democracy is not working in Sacramento rightnow," he said. "I am convinced it can be fixed. But people have to makesacrifices" -- in politics and policy.

Davis concurred that, in theory, the state is governable. But "inreality," he said, "it hasn't been governed properly for a long time."

In his view, the problem stems from extremist politics that began threedecades ago with the anti-tax movement that led to Proposition 13 andhas continued with gerrymandered legislative districts that makelawmakers accountable only to the party faithful who vote in primaryelections.

Analysts say that if Schwarzenegger had the ability to make Californiamore governable, it has declined substantially since the recall, whenhis immense popularity gave him political capital. Now he is a lameduck with a financial crisis that he can no longer argue was inheritedfrom another administration.

He has championed multiple efforts to reshape government. But thepublic did not embrace his vision for how to do so. Voters rejectedmost of his plans at the ballot box, and there was no uprising againstlawmakers when they left his legislative proposals to grow moldy on theshelf.

Last month, voters did heed his call to change the way legislativedistricts are drawn by passing Proposition 11. The new rules governingthat process take effect next year, and supporters of the measure,including Schwarzenegger, say it will ultimately lead to fewerideologues in Sacramento.

The governor also managed to push through the Legislature some limitedrestraints on spending, including a requirement that the state put moremoney in a rainy-day fund when revenues are up.

But special legislative sessions that Schwarzenegger called on thestate's fiscal crisis, water supply and healthcare all ended withoutresolution. The latest special session on the budget is ongoing.

This year, the governor has threatened and cajoled the Legislature --even gone to court -- over money management, but his strategies havebeen met with shrugs. On Tuesday, as he handed out medals of valor tostate employees he said were great examples of "service andselflessness," the governor cracked: "I wish that the legislators havejust a little bit of that."

Former state Senate Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), who has on more thanone occasion accused Schwarzenegger of lacking in that department,concedes that the governor may have a point. He said the state's termlimits law, which forced him from office last month, has created agroup of lawmakers who are well-intentioned but lack the institutionalknowledge to deal effectively with the state's outsized problems.

In recent months, he said, he witnessed lawmakers failing to recognizethe severity of the crisis and unable to respond to it; they lacked thegrounding that comes with years of learning how to govern the state.

"There is no center," Perata said. "I'm not talking aboutpolitical center. There is no action center, or moral center, oranything else left in Sacramento."

Halper and Rothfeld are Times staff writers.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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