Sacramento: Don’t bother with a budget

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Elections in democracies are supposed to be instruments through which citizens pick their leaders and send them their marching orders. But not in California. After a year of campaigning and millions of dollars spent on electioneering, Sacramento will remain stuck in quicksand, with no immediate prospect of rescue.

Oh sure, Californians elected new representatives. In the race for governor, voters chose Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who held himself out as a socially liberal, fiscally stingy lover of the environment. But Brown didn’t seek, and can’t claim, a mandate to overhaul California’s broken system of state government.

Voters also elected (many people will perhaps be surprised to learn) a new Assembly and half a state Senate. That legislative election was notable only for its invisibility, the absence of competition and the lack of any debate about how to close the state’s huge budget gap, bolster its public schools, renew its infrastructure or unwind its crisis of governance.


Yet even had any of these candidates been bolder in addressing California’s dysfunction, it’s doubtful that any election held under our current governing arrangement could have done much more than leave California right where it started.

As before the election, the Legislature will mostly be made up of partisan Democrats and Republicans, a result predetermined by the state’s political geography and polarized electorate. With liberals hugging the coast and conservatives settling inland, it doesn’t much matter how we draw districts; they’ll tend to remain safely Democrat or Republican, which means they’re unlikely to send moderates and compromisers to Sacramento.

The rest of the basic math hasn’t changed either: Democrats have their usual majority in the new Legislature. And Republicans, though a minority, again won enough seats to keep using California’s remaining supermajority rules to resist the majority. Tuesday’s vote may have removed the two-thirds requirement for passing a budget, but supermajorities are still required to raise taxes, levy most fees (as a result of Proposition 26) and approve many spending decisions, which leaves plenty of ways to create impasses over state finances.

Another thing the election didn’t, and couldn’t, fix is California’s uniquely inflexible initiative process. Through initiatives that can’t be amended by the Legislature under the state Constitution, voters have boxed in lawmakers, forcing them to spend limited state funds in particular ways, which only makes it harder to mesh politics and fiscal reality with the state’s bottom line.

So if the election didn’t help us solve the dysfunction in Sacramento, what will?

Here’s a better strategy: Sacramento shouldn’t even bother writing a budget next year. Not even the sunniest optimist can expect California’s current system to yield a financial plan in 2011 that is any better, or even much different, than those of the last decade — budgets full of borrowing, gimmicks and reduced support for schools and colleges. The new Legislature shouldn’t even try.

Instead, as political consultant Richie Ross has suggested (a suggestion candidate Brown offered as his own proposal in a Sept. 15 TV interview), the Legislature should let the voters decide. The Democrats and Republicans should each draw up their best offer for a balanced budget and agree to put both on the ballot in a special election. The one that the gets the most votes goes to the governor, who would also have agreed to sign the winning proposal as part of this unusual but doable process.


Freed from having to spend most of their time and energy banging their heads against the immovable budget wall, lawmakers should instead turn to the more crucial task facing the state: revising California’s Constitution so that our governing system is once again equal to dealing with the state’s huge scale, economic complexity, human diversity and political polarization.

The truth is, California cannot get out of its perilous situation one small reform at a time. In fact, the state’s hankering for tasty bites of incremental reform, with little thought to their unintended consequences and effect on government as a whole, is the cause of our distress, not the cure. A fundamental revision is required, and the path to such an overhaul runs through the Legislature. Only lawmakers can propose a wholesale rewrite of our governing rules or ask voters to call a constitutional convention. The former would be faster and more efficient.

The process shouldn’t look anything like business as usual in Sacramento. The Legislature should bring in advisors from universities, local governments, civic organizations and interest groups. It should send its committees around the state to hold public workshops on the process. It should use social networking tools and partner with civic groups to engage the public in the conversation. It should employ expert arbitrators to help it find common ground on big questions.

Will such deliberations yield agreement a year from now on the exact changes that will be needed to overhaul California’s dysfunctional system? Probably not. Fundamental change takes time. Hiram Johnson, California’s most famous reform governor, didn’t start from scratch when he was elected 100 years ago this week. A generation of California reformers had paved the way, beginning with the adoption of the initiative in Los Angeles in 1903.

But what the Legislature can do in the next year is to put big issues and possible fixes on the California agenda. Until it does, there will only be more California elections about nothing.

Joe Mathews and Mark Paul of the New America Foundation are coauthors of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.”