Government Reform: Is a Change in the Weather Coming?

Reforming government is a lot like the weather. “Everyone talks about the weather,” Mark Twain is credited with saying, “but no one does anything about it.” The same with making government more efficient and responsible. The difference is there’s a group out there trying to do something about it and they may have the political and financial heft to actually make a difference.

California Forward is a bi-partisan group of activist moderates with as firm a grounding in real world politics as they have ambitions for reforming California’s politics. Oh yes, they have the cash to make a difference, too. The five foundations — the California Endowment, The Evelyn and Walter Hass Jr. Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation — kicked in $16 million to support the group through three years of work  — and have apparently promised more if the reforms it generates in that time promise meaningful results.

Among those leading California Forward is Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a former Democratic congressman from California who is the organization’s co-chair. The other co-chair is Thomas McKernan, the chief executive of the Automobile Club of Southern California and a major Republican fundraiser. They and others on the California Leadership Council, which includes former members of Congress and the legislature as well as partisan activists and former member of the California Supreme Court, believe California’s current way of governing is dysfunctional.

Case study #1: the state’s budget process. Which means it’s no surprise their first project, as described in a press release launching the effort, is to develop “new budget-making tools that could lead to better long-term fiscal management, improved results in the quality and efficiency of programs, and greater understanding and accountability regarding public expenditures.” OK, like most groups of their kind they speak in a lofty gibberish accepted among policy wonks. But to put it simply: they want to fix California’s broken budget process that has helped generate the state’s stupefying deficits.

As the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters and the Los Angeles Time’s George Skelton have both noted, other groups at other times have tried to reform California’s government. The proof of their failure is on display in Sacramento, today. They also point out, however, that the money behind the group and the stature of its leadership make this effort unique.

You can’t change the weather through legislation or initiatives. But you can change how government operates through those tools. But getting anything done in the state, whether through the ballot box or the Capitol, requires smarts, money and a commitment for the long haul. California Forward appears to have what it takes. At the very least, they’ll be an interesting group to watch. And who knows? After fixing California’s government maybe they can tackle something simple, like global warming.

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