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We the People Have Made a Mess

William Parent is assistant dean and director of the policy forum at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.

When voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, they accomplished two noble objectives. First, they protected themselves from the runaway inflation of property taxes that came with the skyrocketing house prices of the 1970s. And second, they gave the Legislature and governor a good kick in the shins for not solving the problem, as they were elected to do.

At the same time, that kick proved crippling to government effectiveness. Proposition 13 requires that the Legislature pass new tax increases by a two-thirds majority, which has led to gridlock and patchwork investment in public services. It shifted local property tax revenue to Sacramento and distanced already jaded voters from policymaking and politics. And its capping of annual property tax increases at about 1% means that those who have lived in the same house for 25 years have become almost free riders on their neighbors’ reassessments.

Since then, there also has been the implementation of electoral term limits, which has resulted in inexperienced legislators in leadership posts. We’ve had expensive referendums on three strikes, prisons, schools and roads. The state has also been bound by “no new taxes” promises and allowed legislators to draw their own districts along unyielding, partisan lines. In this atmosphere, California public policy has been defined largely by what people are against, like waste, the dominance of special interests and crime -- politics driven by anger and resentment. In the process, we the people have made something of a mess.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dazzling success in mobilizing political and public support for the bond and cap measures should not blind the state to the size of our mess or the size of the task that remains. California is still divided, broke, vulnerable to annual fiscal gridlocks, unable to adequately fund schools or provide for indigent children and the elderly and paying for a half-baked energy deregulation scheme. All the while, air quality is getting worse. ... And the water? No one is even talking about the water.

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The $15-billion bond and spending cap of Propositions 57 and 58 won’t solve any of these problems, but life will be considerably more difficult for Californians if they do not pass. What would truly make the Legislature more efficient and less prone to gridlock is Proposition 56. If approved, it would repeal a 1933 law requiring a two-thirds vote to pass the state budget, as well as working around one strand of the Gordian knot of Proposition 13, the one requiring a two-thirds vote to pass new tax increases. Instead, a 55% vote of the Legislature would suffice in both instances, except on property taxes. It would take us closer to the democratic principle of majority rule. The governor would still have the power to veto the budget, by line item or as a whole.

If the electorate is willing to bite the bullet on debt and pass Propositions 57 and 58, and also pass Proposition 56, it could open the door to a badly needed new era of reform for California government. One could hear between the lines of the recent public television forum featuring former Govs. Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis a consensus that the time is right for an aggressive and popular governor to lead a major era of such change.

Use the referendum process to lengthen term limits to 12 years and have an independent commission reapportion legislative districts, suggested Deukmejian. Reintroduce open primaries and shorten the legislative session, said Davis. Allow the governor to place referendums directly on the ballot and to appoint such currently elected officials as the superintendent of public instruction, treasurer and insurance commissioner, suggested Wilson and Brown. And many reforms from perspectives other than former governors’ are also worth consideration. “You’ve got to cleanse the Augean stables about every 20 years,” Brown said in explaining the need for major reform. “And a governor has to take the lead in that.”

It won’t be clear until after Tuesday’s primary whether voters recognize how bad the stench of the stables really is and whether Schwarzenegger will be able to mobilize Californians to take responsibility for the immense challenges yet ahead. In the meantime, it is up to the voters of California to make the hard choices, to create a more workable government and to bear the costs of public services needed for our health and security.

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