To fix California, empower elected officials

Are you tired of California’s dysfunctional government? Sick of worrying about our perennial money woes? Has your trust in government reached rock bottom?

Well, then, there’s only one thing to do: Join a movement to give elected officials more power.

That’s right. You read that correctly. You may have a burning desire to throw the bums out or, at the very least, to take away as much of their power as you can, but the only way to fix the system is to do exactly the opposite: Empower elected officials, let them do their jobs, and then hold them accountable.

Without putting it exactly in those words, that’s what Joe Mathews and Mark Paul argue in their new book, “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” (Full disclosure: Mathews and Paul are my colleagues at the think tank the New America Foundation.)

When we think of reform, we generally conjure up images of high minded do-gooders who simply want to make the world a better place. But, at least in the history of California politics, dig deeper and you’ll find that good old-fashioned contempt for politics is as much a motivation for reform as idealism.

In other words, cycles of public outrage — starting with the progressive movement in the early 1900s — have inspired successive attempts to take the politics and politicians out of the art of governance.

I know what you’re thinking. What’s wrong with that? You can’t trust the rats anyway!

But the fix California is in now shows us that successive attempts to tie politicians’ hands have made it impossible for them to fix anything.

It all started in 1911, when progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson persuaded the Legislature to place 23 amendments to the 1879 Constitution on the ballot in a special election. In one fell swoop, the electorate all but rewrote the state’s governing document, giving the voters (among other things) three powerful tools — the initiative, the referendum and the recall — that would allow them to override the politicians.

By 1940, the Constitution had been amended hundreds of times by popular vote, and that was only the beginning. In 1966, a constitutional commission made it even easier to use ballot initiatives to bypass the Legislature.

Sure, other states permit the sort of direct democracy we have in California, but this is the only state in which voter-approved statues cannot be amended by the Legislature without yet another popular vote. That means that California’s initiative system not only circumvents lawmakers, it creates, as Mathews and Paul write, “a new, higher class of law, exempt from independent amendment or fix by the Legislature, no matter how problematic or outdated it becomes.”

To make matters worse, some of the initiatives — fueled by the belief that a simple majority of legislators could not be trusted — further weakened the Legislature by requiring two-thirds supermajorities to pass appropriation spending. The first such requirement, approved by voters in 1933, required a two-thirds legislative vote whenever spending grew by more than 5% from one two-year budget to the next. But in 1978, Proposition 13 upped the ante and henceforth required a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber to raise revenue. This made California the only state to require a two-thirds vote for both spending and tax bills.

As Mathews and Paul argue, the two-thirds rule didn’t keep anybody honest. In fact, requiring such broad, cross-party consensus — more than a simple majority, which is to say more than one party persuading a few members of the other party to join it — has meant that neither party takes responsibility for the state budget. The two-thirds rule merely “obscured responsibility and prevented political accountability.” That’s what happens when the voters put government on autopilot.

As Mathews and Paul see it, we have to start anew. Yes, I know it’s ironic. We need massive reform to cure massive reform. (This won’t be an easy sell.)

What’s the moral of the story? Our distrust of politicians has driven us to tie our government in knots. As alluring as it sounds, banning politicians from governance is not the answer. I guess you could say they’re a necessary evil.