Ballot measures to the rescue

Eight years ago, California was the world’s fifth-largest economy and surging. Today, we’re the eighth largest and falling.

What has caused this decline? Simply put, California is being held hostage by partisan gridlock and a state Constitution that is the third longest in the world.

The solution is straightforward: Make fundamental changes to our Constitution to streamline government so that California can compete more effectively.

Let’s face it -- government reform is not a sexy issue. In a Public Policy Institute of California poll in December, only 2% of those who responded said it was the most important issue facing the state.

Yet reform will allow us to achieve progress on the very issues voters care most about. For too long, our elected officials in Sacramento have struggled (and often failed) to balance the budget, fix our schools, improve access to healthcare and forge a compromise on access to services for undocumented immigrants.

Fortunately, there are a pair of initiatives -- one slated for the June ballot and another being qualified for November -- that will move us closer to a properly functioning system of government. And they are probably the only way to fix the biggest challenges facing our state today.

Budget gridlock: Deficits, protests, IOUs and furloughs. These are just a few of the consequences of a broken budgeting process that has resulted in 22 late budgets in the last 23 years. More distressing is that none of those budgets was worth waiting for.

California Forward, a nonpartisan reform group supported by major charitable organizations, has drafted -- and hopes to qualify for the November ballot -- the Best Practices Budget Accountability Act to address the deficiencies in the budgeting process.

The initiative requires that clear goals and performance measurements be specified for every program in the governor’s budget proposal. During difficult years such as the one we’re facing now, this would enable legislators to make difficult spending decisions based on which programs deliver the greatest benefit. All major expenditures would have to undergo regular performance reviews to ensure we’re using taxpayer dollars efficiently.

The initiative also calls for long-term budgeting by mandating that legislators review a two-year budget and a five-year fiscal forecast. It creates a common-sense process that will use nonrecurring increases in revenue to pay off debt and other one-time uses, rather than locking in greater annual spending that cannot be sustained.

“Pay as you go” budgeting also would be implemented to control new spending -- specific funding sources must be identified before major new expenditures or tax cuts can be enacted.

Legislative gridlock: Imagine a Legislature in which members can debate polarizing issues with open dialogue and civility, and at the end of the debate actually forge a compromise on the most difficult issues we face.

The passage of Proposition 11 in 2008 took us one step closer to this ideal, reducing the partisanship of legislative districts by changing the way districts are drawn. But we must take the last step and pass Proposition 14, the open-primary initiative, in June.

Let’s be clear: Legislators are not bad people. But political reform is not about reforming people; it’s about reforming a broken system that forces candidates to run to the extremes of the political spectrum in order to win contested primaries.

Open primaries would free candidates to take positions on issues that they feel are right for their districts without fear of retribution from political parties or special interests. Voters would be able to vote for the candidate of their choice, regardless of party affiliation, and the candidates who advance to the general election would be those with the most support -- thereby restoring true democracy.

As veterans of legislative battles in Sacramento, we’ve seen good bills held hostage and miserable ones passed in the name of political expediency and deal-making. However, we do not have to accept this status quo, and this year we have a unique opportunity to do something about it. If we get it right, we can put California back on a trajectory that made us the envy of the country and the world.

Steve Westly, the managing partner of a clean-technology venture capital firm, was the controller of California from 2003 to 2007. Fred Keeley is the elected treasurer of the county of Santa Cruz and represented the Monterey Bay area in the Assembly from 1996 through 2002. He serves on the leadership council of California Forward.