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Time to Rethink Golden State

Kevin Starr is state librarian of California and university professor at USC. "His Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, the 1990s" is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf.

So monumental, so overwhelming in its implications is California’s $34.8-billion deficit that ordinary budgeting will not do the job. Everyone has an analysis of how the state got into its current fiscal imbroglio, and each has merits. But no one -- not the governor, not the Legislature -- can be expected to come up with the exact solution, the precise and sharp sword for cutting this Gordian knot. When public affairs arrive at such an impasse, the renegotiation of a sustainable public sector at the state level will reach such a point of intensity that one can legitimately say that the state of California is being more than renegotiated. It is being refounded, if not reborn.

Three times previously, Californians stopped the clock and either founded or refounded state government. In each instance, conditions had reached a state of impasse. In 1849, the military/alcalde system was unable to govern a growing American population of 100,000 gold seekers. In 1878-79, the constitution of a mining and agricultural commonwealth proved inadequate in the face of the industrial and socioeconomic changes in post-Civil War California. By 1907, when the Progressives formed the Lincoln-Roosevelt League and took the first steps toward putting progressivism in power in Sacramento, it had become apparent that the railroad-dominated government of 19th century California could not cope with the complexities of the 20th century, urban-industrial West.

We have reached a similar condition of crisis and transformation today.

As yet, the awareness that California is in a condition of transformative crisis has not consistently attached itself to the language of the current budgetary process. No metaphor whatsoever, no comparison, no analogy, is being offered to the public, either. Gov. Gray Davis comes closest to a metaphor of refoundation when he says that never in its 153-year history has state government faced a fiscal crisis of such magnitude.

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If Davis is correct in his assumption -- and I believe he is -- then we have something more than a budgetary impasse on our hands. We have something like a void in need of a new big bang. We have a crisis in need of a breakthrough solution. We have a disintegration in need of reassembly.

Sustainability is the key requirement. With the fifth- or sixth-largest economy on the planet, depending on the value of the dollar, California cannot afford to behave like a banana republic as far as its state government is concerned: spending like a drunken sailor one year, pawning its shirt the next. A public sector must be renegotiated that will be commensurate with the willingness of the people to pay taxes and the courage of public officials to ask the people to pay such taxes when they are absolutely necessary. Davis hinted at this need in his State of the State address. “Our current fiscal structure,” he said, “has not been updated in 25 years to reflect either changing demographics or our changing economy.”

Before the question of new taxes is taken up, however, a more important one must be answered. Can the elected officials of California -- liberals, moderates and conservatives -- come to a negotiated compromise as to what constitutes a valid and sustainable state program? Such a negotiation will demand philosophical and/or ideological give and take. Republicans cannot adhere forever to their slogan of no new taxes. Democrats cannot adhere to the notion that every existing social program, however expensive, is nonnegotiable.

Nor can our elected officials afford to linger long over the game of blame, although some blaming is to be expected, given human nature. In the long run, it really doesn’t matter who or what has been most at fault -- that becomes a matter of history -- because current taxation and spending patterns cannot continue, end of story. Our elected officials, in short, must think California through anew, just as California was thought through anew in the constitutional convention in Colton Hall, Monterey, in September through November 1849 and, less felicitously, in the second constitutional convention that met in Sacramento 30 years later.

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If we expect our elected officials to do this, moreover, we must back them in their efforts. Too often, constituents treat their elected officials as intimidated ATMs: Give me this or I won’t vote for you! Instead, they should say: You represent the sovereignty of the people because the people have elected you, but the people have elected you not only to do their bidding; they have also elected you to think through their problems and sometimes to challenge them to do what they have to do, whether it be to cut or refashion programs or to raise or lower taxes.

The refounding of the state of California must thus involve the de-intimidation of our elected officials. The budgetary process has become the single most relevant and compelling way that California is thinking through its future. Mere polls or plebiscites are incapable of such an intellectual challenge. Only individual men and women -- elected officials, such as those who met in Philadelphia in 1787 or those who gathered in Monterey in 1849 -- are capable of the nuances and subtleties, the trade-offs and compromises and the courage that such foundational thinking and action requires.

A people, the English poet and political writer John Milton tells us in “Areopagitica,” gets the government it deserves in the long run.

What kind of people are we Californians? Do we see state government as something worthy of refoundation? Are we willing to back our elected officials when they are forced to make hard choices? Do we truly care that there is such a state called California: the product of time and history, a commonwealth embodying the best hopes of each of us, a sovereign entity within the larger sovereignty of the nation, but a sovereignty nonetheless, deriving its powers and authority from us, the people? Is the current ordeal facing state government merely something to read about in newspapers or catch sound bites about on television? Or is there something true and precious, and personal, at stake: the survival and sustainability of a public sector that speaks to our continuing hopes for a better life?


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