Dysfunctional California government needs many parts replaced

The engine of state government in California doesn’t need just a tuneup and oil change. It needs a major overhaul.

Many new parts will be required to fix this dysfunctional fuel-guzzler that tends to stall and create gridlock.

Voters can get started at a May 19 special election by buying a spending cap.

The cap -- Proposition 1A -- was the most vital part of a deal that won enough Republican support last week to pass a $42-billion deficit-reduction package, including a $12.5-billion tax increase.


A spending cap has long been needed in the Capitol to enforce fiscal discipline -- to keep politicians from launching expensive new programs in boom times and being unable to afford them when the economy goes bust.

Here’s how it would work:

Starting in 2011, 3% of general fund revenue would be placed in a rainy day fund each year. After the kitty equaled 12.5% of the general fund, withdrawals could be made to pay off debt or finance one-time infrastructure projects.

Spending growth would be capped at a percentage based on the previous 10-year revenue trend.


Any excess revenue would be stored in the rainy day fund. It could be dipped into to finance current service levels, but not to increase spending beyond inflation and population growth.

“I think this is great,” says state Finance Director Mike Genest. “If we’d had this 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have gotten way out on a limb like we did.”

By Genest’s calculations, there recently would have been $11 billion stashed in a rainy day fund. Spending would have needed to be cut only 3%, rather than 11%. Taxes wouldn’t have had to be raised.

“I don’t want to see peaks and valleys” in budgeting, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told his staff, which developed the cap. “I want to see rolling hills.”


I’d add two more parts to this fiscal control:

Any tax cut would be temporary -- “sunsetted” -- and subject to periodic renewal. As with excessive spending, the state shouldn’t be stuck with a permanent tax cut as revenue falls and a deficit looms.

I’d also require any ballot measure that forces new spending to identify the source of needed revenue. “The general fund” is not an acceptable answer.

Switching gears, California also should junk its closed primary system and install one that’s open to all voters. As part of the budget deal, legislators reluctantly agreed to place a “top two” primary system on the June 2010 ballot.


A reform group headed by former Democratic Sen. Steve Peace of El Cajon crafted the measure. Peace had a “top two” initiative ready to roll. But, at the request of Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), he gave it to the Legislature to lure the tax-hike vote of Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria).

Under the proposal -- strongly supported by Schwarzenegger -- all candidates for state and congressional office would compete on the same ballot. They could identify themselves by party. But voters could vote for any one they wanted. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. Presidential candidates still would run in partisan primaries.

The goal is to elect more pragmatic officeholders -- not necessarily more Democrats or Republicans -- by rewarding candidates who appeal to a wide political spectrum rather than just the rigid right or hard left. Redistricting reform, approved by voters in November, also should help when it takes effect in 2012.

Peace says closed primaries foment campaigns “that increase polarization, actually polluting the goodwill of the population. . . .


“The business of democracy is to find a point of agreement, to compromise. And our current system, after 50 years of manipulation by Democrats and Republicans, makes it difficult for politicians to compromise. What an open primary does is change the game so people who pursue practical mediation of differences are more likely to survive the political process.”

Political parties hate any form of an open primary, fearing that it diminishes their power. But in California, they’ve never had much anyway. Besides, they could still endorse candidates. Most partisan politicians detest it because they got elected under the closed system and fear change.

Opponents argue that an open primary would block minor-party candidates from the general election ballot. But that’s not necessarily true. In some heavily Democratic or Republican areas, a third-party candidate could finish second in a primary.

California briefly had an open primary system in 1998. But the parties sued, and the U.S. Supreme court ruled that they had a right to exclude nonmembers from their nominating process. The new “top two” version is modeled after a Washington state system that cleared the Supreme Court.


The state’s sputtering engine also needs several other new parts, including:

A more user-friendly process of budgeting -- users being the legislators. Almost all have become bystanders in recent years as budgets are negotiated secretly between their four leaders and the governor, the so-called Big Five. This creates legislative bitterness and can exacerbate gridlock. It also keeps the public in the dark.

The Legislature should return to meaningful decision-making in budget committees and on house floors and to compromising in conference committees.

Longer term limits. These current ones have been a disaster. Besides purging knowledge and experience, they discourage long-range planning by insecure legislators whose short-term focus is on winning their next political job.


A more stable tax structure that’s less dependent on volatile income fluctuations of the rich. An independent commission formed by Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) soon will recommend a fix.

A simple majority vote for budget passage; 55% at most. Scrap the two-thirds vote requirement.

It really gums up the engine.