Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"California Crackup"

Anyone living in California right now knows how hard the state is straining, with unemployment above 12 percent and well over that in some inland areas, schools slicing teachers and firing librarians, the infrastructure rotting, and very little faith in our action-hero governor.

Joe Mathews was one of the many talented investigative journalists at the LAT Times when I arrived, and like many he chose to leave what he considered a sinking ship. He is now Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author Mark Paul, a former state deputy treasurer and journalist, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. The book is brisk, well-argued, at times darkly funny -- and deserves an audience far broader than the policy wonks who will be drawn to it.

What follows is a Q&A with Mathews on the crisis facing the state, and the hope that things might change.

 -For all the wealth, creativity and innovation in the Golden State, we're near the bottom in a number of categories, including employment. What are the direst indicators?

California has traditionally lagged the nation in unemployment, one of the consequences of being a state that attracts lots of fortune-seekers and risk-takers. (Such people often fail and experience hard times). The most dire indicators have to do with education and higher education, which is where the budget crisis has its most pernicious effects. Before the current crisis, California was not producing enough college graduates to meet its own economics and jobs needs; the Public Policy Institute of California says we'll be short one million college grads in 2025. That's a problem not just for the state but for America. U.S. competitiveness has lagged as we've fallen behind other countries in college graduates. To catch up, California needs to produce more graduates. Because of our problems with governance and the budget, we're going to be producing fewer graduates now and for at least the next few years.

-Every state has its problems, especially these days. Why do California's seem so intractable?

Because we have a governing system that does not allow us to make decisions in a timely, democratic fashion. Our system is three systems at war with each other. We elect lawmakers and executives through a majoritarian system -- first-past-the-post, plurality elections, which is in essence a British system for making majorities. Then we ask them to govern in a system that requires two-thirds votes -- essentially consensus -- to get things done. And on top of that, we throw a third system, an initiative system that permits voters to lock in all kinds of spending and tax mandates into the constitution, without providing off-setting moneys or cuts in the budget to make things balance. Such a system simply can't work. So Californians are in a position where they know there are problems that need to be addressed, but they live under a governing system that gives them no clear means to address them.

-How much of a culprit is Prop. 13 and other instance of so-called direct democracy like initiatives and recalls?

Recalls aren't a problem of this system. And there's nothing wrong with the use of initiative--other states and countries use it, and don't have California's governance problem. The real problem is with the rules around our initiative process--particularly the inflexibility of the process. California is the only place on earth where an initiative can't be amended by the legislative body without another vote of the people. And California, unlike most places with the process, does not give the legislative body an opportunity to get involved in the process. We've made it a fourth branch of government, beyond the reach of the other branches.

Prop 13 is a contributor to this, not so much because of what it did on property taxes but because of its role in centralizing power in Sacramento. Prop 13, by making it hard for local communities to raise their own taxes and revenues, essentially shifted power into the hands of a very few people in Sacramento, who make all the tax and spending decisions (albeit with all sorts of restrictions also imposed by the people). And when those people don't get along, the entire state -- including every local government -- suffers.

-The Governor has said he inherited a broken system, which your book bears out. Does he deserve any of the blame for the mess we're all in now?

He does and he doesn't. I'm more sympathetic than most Californians to the job he's done. I think he's made multiple, difficult, honest attempts to fix the state's broken budget system. But he hasn't been able to convince voters -- and frankly, his proposed solutions, while having some important elements (he has pushed for a larger rainy day fund than the ones we currently have), haven't gone far enough in unwinding the current system we have. And in political reform, he wasted time too much time pursuing and winning very, very modest reforms in redistricting and open primary when we need bolder changes (such as multi-member districts that include proportional representation) to create real political competition.

And in his own policies, he pursued too much borrowing, particularly at the beginning of his first term with Prop 57. But as with nearly everything in California, voters went along. And that's the most important point: the authors of the current system are voters. To blame a governor or legislators is beside the point; they are merely the clean-up crew for the constitutional messes we ourselves have made.

-What are some of the things that need to be done?

Three big things. First, we need a new election system that makes every vote count and gives the legislative body enough credibility so that voters can be convinced to restore a saner system. The best way to do that is by adopting the best of successful voting systems all over the world (in the same way Apple took the best technologies from around the world and molded them into an iPhone). We should have regional legislative districts with multiple members, some of whom are chosen by proportional representation, so that every vote counts (a party needs every vote it can get in a proportional system, so both parties would compete everywhere), so that media cover legislative elections and agendas (regional districts would solve if they were based on the regions covered by media organizations--with single-member districts, regional media like TV stations or the LA Times have no incentive to cover each little legislative race), and so that everyone has representation (even Republicans in San Francisco might have one or two Republicans representing them in a regional district).

Once you've done that, you need to get rid of the two-thirds rules that govern budgets, taxes, school funding, local government funding and just about everything else. The majority party in the legislature must be accountable for what happens in the legislature; two-thirds rules obscure accountability becasue both parties must sign on. As part of stripping the constitution of all sorts of budget restrictions, we need to devolve power back to local governments -- including the power to raise taxes -- so that spending and taxing decisions are made on a particular program are made at the same level of government.

Finally, we need to update our system of initiative and referendum in ways that give more power and choice both to the people and to their elected representatives. The initiative process should no longer provide a way to do an end-run around the legislature; the legislative body should be able to change anything the people do, and ballot initiatives that mandate spending or tax cuts must live within the legislative budget. But by the same token, it should be easier for the people to call a referendum on an act of the legislature. The goal is to get a noisy conversation going between the people and their government -- that's direct democracy.

-Given that Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman are lined up for the gubernatorial election, and giving the existing mix in Sacramento, what are the chances the state'e leadership will take these kinds of serious steps? What will it take to get real change?

I don't see any hope in Brown or Whitman. They are running conventional campaigns that at best ignore -- and at worst lie about -- the realities of the state's governing system. If we're lucky, the next governor will be irrelevant to the reform discussion. Voters also might note that if they leave their ballots blank when they vote for governor, that decision will make it easier for reformers to qualify ballot measures to change the system (since the qualification standards are a percentage of the number of people who vote for governor). A none-of-the-above vote has real force in California.

Real change requires major constitutional changes. That can be done either through a convention or through a revision commission. It will require multiple votes of the people. And it will require years of work to educate the public and put public opinion in line with reality. Californians believe they can have something for nothing from government (they also believe things that are wrong, like that prisons are the number one state expenditure and that the lottery provides significant money to public education).
I am not terribly optimistic about the ability of Californians to be educated and take the action that is needed.

If you look at California history, it often takes a truly terrible event -- a profound catastrophe like the San Francisco earthquake (which fueled the major Progressive changes of the early 20th century) -- to get Californians engaged in making major government reform. I'm afraid that it will require something of that scale to spur us to action. In other words, if we're not doomed, we're probably doomed.


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Krist Novoselic said...

Great interview. I need to read this book.

Pete Bilderback said...

This is a deeply depressing situation. The problems with the way California governs (or fails to govern) itself become most evident during an economic downturn, but they won't go away without serious systemic changes.

I'm not familiar enough with the situation to know if Californians have the stomach to do what is necessary, but it is distressing to read such a pessimistic take on the situation from someone who clearly understands the problem and what needs to be done to solve it.

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