California’s Budget Crisis: Confusing and Tragic

California’s current budget has a big hole in it — roughly the size of $18 billion. Depending on how you count the census, that works out to about $475 per person. Next year it gets worse. The budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 is already estimated to be $22 billion out-of-whack — let’s call it another $600 per person. That ‘s serious money.

Keeping track of what’s going on with the deficit, who is talking with whom and who is doing what can be challenging. There used to be negotiations between the Big Five (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the leaders of the Democrats and Republicans in both the Assembly and Senate). But when the Governor began pushing for tax increases, the GOP legislative leaders balked and are no longer engaged in much of the discussions (except through press releases). Democrats engineered an end-around the constitutional requirement that two-thirds of each house pass tax increases, but the Governor vetoed their bill — not because of the creative accounting, but because the package was missing items he considers critical.

It’s enough to confuse anyone. Fortunately, two recent columns will help in keeping the players and issues straight. One is by Dan Smith, the Capitol Bureau Chief of the Sacramento Bee. He offers a Q&A that serves as a factual road map to what’s happening in Sacramento.

The second is an analysis by George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times. He works through some of the details behind the ever growing deficits. It becomes clear this is not a challenge the state can simply slash spending to overcome. The Republican’s aversion to raising taxes is principled, but there comes a time — and emergency — that justifies an exception. It’s hard to see how this is not one of those times.

There are other takes on California’s  budget debacle worth reading. For a perspective from outside the state, the Washington Post tries to explain what’s happening here to its readers. The article focuses on how California’s dysfunctional politics contributes to the problem.

For the view from an even greater distance, there’s an article from the United Kingdom’s The Independent reporting on State Controller John Chiang’s warning that California will run out of money in February. The article zeroes in on how spending mandates enacted by voters, combined with limits on property taxes, have made it more difficult for lawmakers to respond to the deficit crisis.

If the controversy was over some arcane public policy that only politicians and academics cared about, the fiasco in Sacramento wouldn’t matter. But the services the state provides in support of economic development and the safety net it provides to our least powerful residents is of vital importance. Especially now. That’s what makes this whole, confusing mess more than confusing. It makes it tragic.

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California’s Dysfunctional Government Needs Big Fix

California used to have a government of which, believe it or not, its citizens could be proud. Say what you will about  Governor Ronald Reagan, but, working with Democratic leaders like Speaker Leo McCarthy and President Pro Tem James Mills, things got done. Working with Republican legislative leaders budgets got passed. Important legislation (abortion rights and welfare to name just two) was enacted. The educational system was (relatively) strong and infrastructure was expanded, not just maintained. Yes there were problems and conflicts and pitched political battles, but the people’s business got done.

Not so now. Facing an 18 month budget deficit of over $42 billion (and counting) leaders in Sacramento are stymied by partisanship and hamstrung by procedural rules. A budget deal may be close as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are hard at work on a compromise. Their deal will bypass legislative Republicans who will no doubt sue the minute any compromise package is signed into law. In the meantime state services are being cut, infrastructure projects are being suspended, state workers furloughed, California’s bond ratings are falling nearly as fast as the public’s confidence in state government.

It’s not like lawmakers are trying to be inept. For example,  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has tried to create a “post-partisan” environment where pragmatism prevails. He just seems unable to stop insulting legislators. While all sides claim to be willing to compromise, each side of the Great Triad of Gridlock (the Governor, Democratic and Republican legislators) have positions that are non-negotiable. It’s hard to find common ground when so many issues are unmentionable. One might admire the tenacity with which Republican legislators cling to their anti-tax principles, for instance, if they would only recognize that these are unusual times that require an open mind. 

If the only result of this embarrassmentwas a diminishment in the reputation of California politicians it would be interesting, but not so bad. Unfortunately, the inability to govern is hurting citizens already on the edge. The independent California Budget Project recently issued a report, Proposed Budget Cuts Come at a Time of Growing Need, outlining the fraying safety net as it’s being pulled by a faltering economy and substantial budget cuts.  The CBP is a liberal group, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of their analysis. While the first to feel the pain from governmental dysfunction are the poor, the impact doesn’t stop there. The middle class relies on state services, too.

Clearly, California’s government needs reform. A first step was taken this year with the passage of Proposition 11. By changing the way the state’s legislative districts are drawn there’s a chance a greater number of pragmatic lawmakers may find it possible to be elected. The more competitive these districts are, the more centrist (and, consequently, less purely ideological) the winners are likely to be. This doesn’t mean they won’t have strongly held beliefs. It’s just that they (hopefully) will be more willing to find common ground with their political opponents than do current legislators who apparently value ideological purity over results.

Proposition 11, however, should be just the start. Another approach to consider would be open primaries combined with run-off elections. Voters would be able to cast their ballot for a candidate in the primary regardless of their political affiliation. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two candidates face-off in the general election, even if they are of the same party. Again, the expected result would be lawmakers who can appeal to the broadest cross-section of their communities.

Would this approach weaken political parties? Yes, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  Parties play an important role in American and state politics. Reducing their influence is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, it’s also important to recognize that candidates are increasingly running outside of the party apparatus. Senator Barack Obama, for example, defeated the establishment’s candidate in the presidential primaries. Governor Schwarzenegger is nowhere near the mainstream of the GOP.  And in California, at least, the parties have done little to earn the support or sympathy of voters. The state’s gridlock demonstrates what happens when partisanship trumps public policy.

Proposition 11 passed narrowly, but it passed. It’s success represents California’s first step down the road toward a new way of electing lawmakers and thus, hopefully, a more pragmatic government . Nothing happening in Sacramento should disuade voters from continuing this journey.

Politically Thankful

An economy in meltdown mode, the lamest of duck-like Administrations, two hot wars, a worldwide war on terror, carnage in India, the Middle East a powder keg with Iran going nuclear and so on and so forth. Without sounding like a Billy Joel song, there’s a lot to be concerned about this Thanksgiving. Yet, there’s always something in the cup, even if that proverbial cub is half broken. So here’s a short, incomplete and random list of things to be thankful for, politically, this day of being thankful. Feel free to leave a comment with your own list.

1. Be Thankful Change is Coming.  The election of Senator Barack Obamais thanks-worthy on so many levels. Even leaving aside the culture change that is sure to come with an African-American family int he White House, there’s the hope of a competent government addressing tough problems in a realistic, pragmatic fashion. While President-elect Obama symbolizes the change he promises, his campaign and transition indicate a level of competence not seen in Washington in years.

2. Be Thankful the Bush Administration is Leaving. Even supporters and admirers of President George W. Bush have to thankful that his tenure in the oval office is coming to an end. He’s done some things right, but overall, his record as president is abysmal. While coming to office as the champion of “compassionate conservatism” his administration proved to be neither compassionate nor conservative (fiscally, at least). After eight years America’s standard of living has declined, our standing in the world has declined, and we lack the ability to unify even in the face of tremendous challenges. January 20th can’t come too soon.

3. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Washington. It might look like the Democrats are in complete control of the federal government. They won the White House, increased their majority in the House and are just two votes shy of being able to overcome Republican filibusters with two Senate seats remaining. As any reader of this blog has determined, I’m a Democrat. Yet the idea of one-party rule — regardless of the party — concerns me deeply. Time and again, when one party gains too much control over the government it overreaches. Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing. It forces the majority to pause, listen to the opposition and make adjustments. The result is (usually) better legislation than would have occurred if the party in power were unchecked.

4. Be Thankful the Democratic Party is More Diverse Than It Was Before. While lacking super-majorities, the Democrats in Congress have substantial majorities to work with. While some fear this will result in liberals running amok, the reality is, the Democratic majorities are far from homogeneous. As Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post pointed out, there’s a large number of moderates and conservatives in the most recent classes of lawmakers. Approximately one-third of the Democratic House majority come from districts with”Republican underpinnings (at least at the presidential level.” The Democratic Leadership in both houses will need to accommodate these members if they hope to keep their majorities. The result should be more thoughtful legislation which, while progressive, could avoid swinging the pendulum too far to the left.

5. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Sacramento. Democrats increased their majorities in the California legislature, but failed to achieve the two-thirds super majorities they need to safely ignore Republicans. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that the Republicans in Sacramento are so fixated on avoiding new taxes (while preserving tax breaks, no matter how unfair, already in place) that Sacramento has become a childish, dysfunctional example of government gone silly. Ideology is great. Making a political point is to be expected. Destroying the state’s economy in the name of ideological political points is governmental malpractice. Legislators of both parties need to grow up, quit hiding behind worn out slogans, and start solving problems. Then we’d really have something to be thankful for.

6. Be Thankful Americans Rejected the Politics of Division. Many had come to believe that the way to electoral success in America was to demonize your opponent. That was the Karl Rove approach to winning — and it worked. This year we had Senator John Edwards calling health insurance executives “evil”Governor Sarah Palin rallying the “real America” against the socialists who fail to “see America like you and I see America.” Senator Edwards lost and so did Governor Palin and her running mate, Senator John McCain. Americans are tired of “us versus them” politics. That doesn’t mean it’s gone away entirely; just ask a Wall Street CEO. But the strategy of demonization and division backfired. Senator John McCain’s aura of being a straight shooter shattered when he descended into the Rovian mud. So did his dream of becoming president.

7. Be Thankful There’s Always Another Election.  Change was a campaign slogan this year, but it’s been an American reality since our founding. Every two years we hold those in power accountable. Certainly, there are obstacles. Incumbency is still the most powerful factor in any particular election, followed closely by money. Yet each election night tells a story and brings change. It keeps those in power accountable and, as importantly, nervous. And that’s a good thing.

So that’s my short list for Thanksgiving. I hope you’ll add to it. And I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

Proposition 11: The Change We Need

Some people see politics, policy and the world in blacks and whites. “I’m right, they’re wrong.” “Common ground is for the weak.” They believe what they believe so absolutely it makes attempts to see the other side’s point-of-view immaterial. They form the core of the political parties. They occupy the far right and the extreme left fringes. The purity of their ideology outweighs the momentary need for pragmatism.

Partisan politics is too often the ultimate expression of this colorless world view. Ideas don’t matter, the political impact of those ideas is what counts. If it’s a question of getting more of “their side” elected or helping to solve problems, it’s no contest: my side wins; we’ll solve problems later. We see this all the time in political attacks that seek to dehumanize the other side. They don’t just disagree with “us,” they are not “us.” We’re patriotic; they’re not. We’re real; they’re false.

Presidential politics highlights this dynamic every four years. The California Legislature demonstrates this phenomena every day it’s in session. The state faces enormous problems. Our financial situation is a mess. Our water supply is endangered. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Too many of our schools are failing. The list goes on and on. Too much partisanship means these problems fester.

What California needs are lawmakers who focus on solving problems, not scoring political points. We need lawmakers who are beholden to all of us, not just to the extremes of their party. And that’s why California needs to change the way we draw our legislative districts.

Under current law, state legislators draw the districts. Not surprisingly, they are only human after all, the primary concern of district drafting is to protect incumbents. If this means ignoring communities of interest or common sense, too bad. The ideal is a “safe seat,” not a reasonable one.

By definition, a safe seat protects an incumbent from the opposition. This means lawmakers are really selected in the primary, not the general, election. The current redistricting process has seen to that. And primaries are dominated by folks who see the world in black-and-white. The winning candidates, then, are those who can best appeal to the party’s base.

This is great for the lawmakers, but lousy for the state. Certainly there’s a need in the Legislature for purists of both parties, partisans who will sound the clarion call of ideology. But if that’s the only type of legislator we have in Sacramento, the Capital becomes more like talk radio than a forum for solving problems. Because the fact is that solutions come from the middle, not the extremes.

Proposition 11 takes redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers, investing this power in a commission that, while having a balance of members from both parties, is independent of them. The result will be less safe to incumbents, but more responsive to a broader slice of the political spectrum. Extremists will not do well in these districts. Ideologues will be at a disadvantage. Instead, moderates and pragmatists will hold the advantage.

Even more threatening, to some, is how Proposition 11 threatens the status quo. Under the current redistricting scheme, those in power draw the new lines. Those in power can, consequently, assure they and their allies will remain in power. By taking redistricting powers away from incumbents, those in power might lose it were Proposition 11 to pass. Democrats are currently in power in the Legislature (it wasn’t always so, but it is now). Not surprisingly the Democratic Party is the chief opponent of Proposition 11.

The irony here is that Proposition 11 is very much in keeping with the political philosophy and rhetoric of the Democratic nominee for president, Senator Barack Obama. Senator Obama speaks frequently on the need to move beyond partisanship and ideology in order to solve America’s problems. He calls himself a pragmatist who is more interested in solving problems than scoring political points. Proposition 11 would help make Senator Obama’s new politics a reality in California. The California Democratic Party embraces Senator Obama, apparently, but not necessarily his ideals.

Proposition 11 is not perfect and its opponents are spending millions of dollars attacking it. Perfection, however, is not and should not be the criteria used in evaluating an initiative or legislation. The real question is whether the proposal improves on the current situation.

California’s politics is broken. We all saw how this is playing out in the ongoing budget fiasco and Sacramento’s inability to reach consensus on most any issue of importance.

Proposition 11 isn’t a magic wand that will suddenly make Sacramento a haven of functionality. Proposition 11 won’t even remove all partisans from the Legislature. There are numerous communities — and, therefore, legislative districts — in the state that will be controlled by one party.

What Proposition 11 will do is increase the number of problem solvers elected to office. It will shift the center of political gravity in Sacramento from the dysfunctional nexus in which it resides today and move it toward a more pragmatic location. Who knows, it might even help create a more civil political environment and a more productive legislature.

California faces many problems. Proposition 11 is part of the solution.

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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Supreme Court Deals Blow to Party Power — Maybe

Imagine what a California legislature would look like if the general election actually mattered. Would there be less deadlock? Would the extremes of each party rule or would power accrue to the center? Given the dysfunction in Sacramento today, it’s an interesting potential tomorrow. And thanks to the United States Supreme Court, it could actually happen.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Washington State’s “Top Two” primary structure. This system allows voters to vote for any candidate on the primary ballot, regardless of the party affiliation of the voter or the candidate. The two candidates with the most votes compete in the general election — even if they’re both members of the same party. The seattlepi web site has a thorough history of how Washington came to adopt this approach.

California’s currently has what’s called a “closed primary.” Voters cast ballots based on their party affiliation. Those candidates finishing first in their primary advance to the general election. Because of legitimate communities of interest and a substantial dose of political gerrymandering, the primary results usually decides the eventual winner. Districts are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican.

With primaries being the center of the political universe, partisans gain the upper hand. Candidates don’t need to appeal to the broader electorate, but they desperately need to court their parties’ core constituents. This tends to result in Democrats being more liberal and Republicans more conservative than might otherwise be the case. Moderates in Sacramento are few and far between.

The result is a state government that at best works poorly and at worst doesn’t work at all. As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters points out, “The state’s ongoing budget crisis and lack of progress on issues such as water and education reform attest to the dysfunction – and to the disgust and alienation that Californians increasingly express toward politics.”

Partisan politics wouldn’t go away if California were to take this route. The Washington State approach, which is a “blanket primary” with “Top Two” result, still allows the parties to recommend candidates to the voters. It just prevents them from controlling what candidates are on the November ballot.

This doesn’t mean liberals and conservatives would never be elected, but it does mean more moderates would make it to Sacramento. Because in many districts, the Republican who could best appeal to independents and Democrats and the Democrat who could best appeal to independents and Republicans would have the best odds of winning the general election. This shift, along with, as Mr. Walters notes, “thoughtful reform of redistricting, and perhaps term limits, could restore some of the Legislature’s legitimacy and relevance.”

The Top Two system might be a boon for statewide offices, as well, for the same reasons it would benefit the legislature. Instead of politicans jockeying for partisan advantage, we might have state officials focused on solving problems.  And that requires compromise, something a more moderate environment in Sacramento would facilitate.

The Legislature, however, is unlikely to change the current election system. Lawmakers won under the current rules and have little motivation to reform a game they’ve mastered. Change would require a ballot initiative. Fortunately, it’s likely the Supreme Court decision has sparked ideas among moderates in both parties. After all, championing an issue like this would be very appealing to centrist candidates. It would increase their chances of getting through to the general election, appeal to independents and crossover voters, and would certainly increase a sponsor’s visibility.

So here’s an interesting scenario: Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (a Republican) and former Controller Steve Westly (a Democrat) both want to be elected Governor in 2010. Both are moderates, which puts them at a disadvantage under today’s system, but would be a strength under a blanket primary system. Better still, both made fortunes in the Silicon Valley and have proven their willingness to invest large amounts in campaigns. Imagine the impact of them coming together to qualify and pass a Top Two ballot initiative. Who knows, California might not get a functional legislature and the chance to choose between Commissioner Poizner and Controller Westley for governor.

It could happen.

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Is GOP Trying to Remain the Minority Party in California?

The Democrats in California have it way too easy. Keeping their majority in the legislature is simple — all they have to do is show up and read the newspaper. The GOP will have done something to communicate to the state’s voters that they’re out-of-step, out-of-bounds or out-of-their-minds.

Two stories in today’s Sacramento Bee illustrate the point. The first involves a bible study course sponsored by Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines. Studying scripture isn’t the problem. If lawmakers want to study the bible or Shakespeare or Orson Scott Card, I don’t really care. The intolerance of the leader of those study sessions, however, is reminding independent minded voters, however, of how exclusionary the GOP can be sometimes.

Ralph Drollinger, who teaches these weekly bible classes, attacked lawmakers attending a rival bible fellowship class that embraced people of all faiths without insisting that they accept Jesus Christ as Messiah. Writing on his Capitol Ministries web site, he labeled this approach as “more than disgusting to our Lord and Savior.” His basic message is that you either accept in a manner that meets Mr. Drollinger’s criteria or your spiritual beliefs are meaningless. To believe in Jesus Christ as anything other than the messiah “is a deadly lie,” according to Mr. Drollinger.

People can believe what they want. If Mr. Drollinger believes his way is the only heavenly highway, well good for him. I think he’s wrong. So do the Catholics he once described as practicing a “false religion” according to the Bee. But then, my guess is we disagree on lots of things. The Bee also quotes him as saying that it is “sinful for a woman lawmaker to be away from her children four days a week while in Sacramento.”

What’s harmful to Republicans is not the specific rantings of this zealot. It’s that it belies their claim to being the party of the “Big Tent.” Mr. Drollinger’s views, presumably, reflect the perspective of those attending his GOP sponsored classes. Inviting a religious  bigot into the capitol, one who vilifies and literally damns those who disagree with him as “sinful” and an “affront to God” could explain why the tent isn’t as big as the GOP claim, and why it’s doomed to get even smaller in the state over time.

The second article in today’s Sacramento Bee concerns efforts to tighten up a tax loophole that allows wealthy Californians to purchase yachts, RVs and other big ticket items, park them out-of-state for 90 days, and avoid paying Califonria state sales and use taxes on the purchase. Republicans refuse to close this tax dodge, some of them claiming they are protecting the job of the “immigrant who sprays fiberglass on a boat …” according to the Bee.

Compared to the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit, there’s not a lot of money at stake here: about $21 million. But every dollar counts. So Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the legislature want to extend how long the purchased item needs to remain outside of California from 90-days to one year. Republicans are blocking the measure. The highly regarded and bi-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the change would not detrimentally impact the state’s economy. Many of the Republicans, apparently blessed with information from a higher source, disagrees.

Apparently GOP lawmakers believe that the tax code they inherited upon taking office is sacrosanct, flawless and untouchable. Never mind logic. Never mind the facts. Never mind fairness. Republicans oppose tax increases. Period. That means the tax code cannot be changed, even if that means defending indefensible tax loopholes.

These two stories point out an absolutism among Republicans that make most Californians uncomfortable. Why should independents, Democrats and moderate Republicans support a party who considers them damned by God? Who would rather take medical care away from poor children than force the rich to pay a sales tax on the RVs and yachts they buy?

Republicans hold just 15 seats in the 40-member Senate. Two of those seats are vulnerable. If they go to challengers the Democrats would have the two-thirds vote they need in the upper house to pass anything they want.

In the Assembly, Republicans hold only 32 of the state’s 80 Assembly seats. That’s only five seats away from complete irrelevancy. The state would be better served by a more balanced legislature. One in which pragmatism is acknowledged as a virtue, not a sin. One where seeking solutions is more important than blindly adhering to the strict construction of campaign platitudes. Republicans who long for the days of Ronald Reagan should remember he was one of the most pragmatic governors in the state’s history. He was also one of the most tolerant.

But the California Republican party of Ronald Reagan is gone. The GOP now seems to be in the hands of politicians out-of-step with the majority of Californians. And the Democrats proclaim, “Hallelujah!”