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.

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.

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!”