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Straight talk on governing

Two profound observations about state government and politics have been uttered in recent days. One is destined to become a classic. The other sounded an alarm for all Californians to wake up and look in the mirror.

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown nailed it when he wrote to some disgruntled legislators that “compromise in the rough-and-tumble legislative process is not achieved by doilies and tea.” That should go into the political pundits’ catalog of favorite quotations and be cited for generations.

It was Brown’s concluding sentence in a letter to the lawmakers flatly rejecting their contentions that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had broken the law by threatening to kill hundreds of bills unless the Legislature delivered one on water. Veto decisions are “an intrinsic part of the legislative process,” he wrote.

In other words, the cure for Capitol dysfunction does not include applying another shackle on the chief executive.

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“What? They want the AG to go arrest the governor, put handcuffs on him and drag him off to jail,” Brown elaborated in an interview. “What you have here is a legislative dispute. It is a hurly-burly process and it has been that way since the Federalists and Jeffersonians were fighting over things. Criminalizing the process would be undemocratic.”

Brown, who was California’s governor three decades ago and is running for the job again, says he’s certain that Schwarzenegger’s veto threat was legal, not attempted bribery as the touchy legislators asserted. But he’s not so certain that it was smart. Schwarzenegger ultimately backed off without getting the water bill.

More on that later.

A more lengthy observation about Sacramento dysfunction constituted an entire speech by California Chief Justice Ronald M. George to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. He basically blamed the voters and California’s century-old citizens’ initiative process.

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Although George is a Republican appointed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, he doesn’t have a dog in the partisan political hunt. His branch of government, unlike the legislative or executive, is oriented more toward the non-confrontational atmosphere of doilies and tea. So when he gives a speech titled “The Perils of Direct Democracy: The California Experience,” it’s worth attention.

“In no other state is the practice as extreme as in California,” he said.

George lamented that lawmakers and California itself “have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket” by the two-thirds majority vote requirement -- in the Legislature and in local government -- for raising taxes. This restriction is “often at cross purposes” with other voter-approved constitutional amendments requiring high levels of spending on such programs as transportation and schools, he added.

The voters’ constant meddling with the Constitution has “rendered our state government dysfunctional, at least in times of severe economic decline,” George said.

“A student of government might reasonably ask: Does the voter initiative, a product of the Populist movement that reached its high point in the early 20th century in the Midwest and Western states, remain a positive contribution. . . . Or [has it] now become the tool of the very types of special interests it was intended to control and an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process.”

As a student of government, I’d say the initiative has become a tool of special interests and political consultants, both types often looking for a big payday.

There have been only 17 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in addition to the Bill of Rights, George noted. But there have been more than 500 amendments to the California Constitution since 1879.

Amending the U.S. Constitution is a rigorous endeavor. It normally requires a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Amending the California Constitution, however, is more a function of collecting enough money for a ballot campaign that can attract a mere majority of voters.

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While George was speaking, the nonpartisan Field Poll was surveying California voters. Interviewers found an apparent willingness to make it more difficult to mess with the state Constitution. Most of those polled (56%) supported the idea of raising the vote requirement to two-thirds.

A slim majority (51%) also said there should be “fundamental changes” in the Constitution. But 69% objected to reducing the legislative vote requirement for a tax increase to a simple majority. And 51% even opposed lowering the required budget vote from two-thirds to a majority.

But these shackles on the Legislature aren’t what’s holding it back from a water deal. It’s decades-old conflicts between agricultural, urban and environmental interests. There are still disputes over groundwater monitoring, water rights guarantees, who controls the delta water spigot and the size of a construction bond.

Nevertheless, Schwarzenegger concluded after a weekend of meetings with legislative leaders that “enough progress” had been made that he could drop his veto threat and judge all bills “on their merits.” The leaders had predicted that’s what he ultimately would do.

And the question is, did he drop the sledgehammer he had been swinging on his foot?

If someone threatens and backs off, Brown noted, “then you’re not as credible the next time.” But he added: “We’ll have to see what the results are in terms of policy and working relationships.”

“I tried to avoid those kinds of things,” Brown recalled. “When you start threatening, then other people start threatening you. When does it end?”

Schwarzenegger may have hurt his credibility by seeming to bluff. But backing off was his only real choice. By doing that, he avoided self-demolition with the sledgehammer. Legislators would have shunned him for the rest of his term. The threat was effective, however, in reminding lawmakers who signs their bills. It’s not some interest group.

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Meanwhile, legislators should heed Brown’s message: Stop whining and legislate.

And voters should hear George’s: Stop micromanaging, loosen some shackles and let the elected representatives do their jobs.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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