Reform in California

Mar 25, 2011 No Comments

Let’s get practical.

By Keith Yetter

In the last year, with the passage of Proposition 8 and the Legislature’s inability or unwillingness to write a “fair and balanced” budget, we have heard increasingly louder demands for massive reform of the structure of governance in the State of California.  Many politicians and political activists have gone so far as to call for a Constitutional Convention with the hope of enacting reforms.

I am in complete agreement that California’s government is broken and is crying out for massive reforms; Sacramento has come to a partisan screeching halt and the initiative process is spiraling out of control.  However, we are wasting our time struggling to hold a Constitutional Convention that is nearly impossible to enact and even less likely to result in reforms that voters will accept.  We need to focus on individual issues hindering effective governance of California and change them, as opposed to one giant reform package that may be “too big to fail.”

Let me outline the problems with relying on a Constitutional Convention for reform.  Basically, the process to call a convention and then ratify its proposals is so absurdly long and complicated that IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN!!

First, the legislature has to pass a measure, with a 2/3 vote, placing an initiative on the ballot that calls for a convention, or voters need to pass an initiative that places the initiative calling for a convention.  (Phew that was a mouthful, and yes… that is what she said.) Second, voters need to approve the initiative calling for a convention; once this happens the convention has to be held within six months.  Third, somehow the delegates to the convention have to be chosen.  Fourth, the delegates need to agree on something. (Preferably something good.)  And fifth, the voters have to approve what the delegates have agreed upon as one or multiple ballot initiatives. Assuming that all the initiatives pass (a very risky assumption), this process could optimistically take five years.

Right about now you must be asking yourself, “Wow Keith, that is really depressing! Where can I buy my ticket to Alaska so Sarah Palin can pay me to watch out for Russians?!”   To which I would have to respond, “Dude, Sarah Palin quit and if California passes an oil severance tax then Arnold could pay you to call the Russians gurly men.”  OK no… but seriously don’t leave yet.  There are changes that can and must be enacted now before California slips away into the Pacific and Reno becomes beachfront property.

First, we need to wrestle the California Legislature from its partisan headlock. From January to September of 2009, individual Democrats voted against the majority of their party 1% of the time, and Republicans voted against the majority of their party 4% of the time. The reasons that the parties have such power over the members of the legislature are: (1) in the past, districts have been drawn by the legislature to create “safe” districts for the parties, (2) term limits mean that legislators never develop enough individual political influence and cannot establish electoral control without their party. The draconian term limits currently imposed on state legislators (6 years in the Assembly and 8 years in the Senate) make them individually weak and vulnerable. Legislators cannot spend enough time in Sacramento to establish themselves, and are instead always worrying about their next election. Since the only way to get reelected is with party or special interest support, the parties have absolute control over individual legislators. This utter reliance on partisanship results in the blatant malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance of the state government that we have seen over the last decade.

Californians took a huge first step toward reform last November when we passed Prop 11, which created a special commission to redraw state districts independent of parties. This law on its own could change the game for the legislature. Creating competitive districts will allow for more moderate candidates to be elected, which will weaken partisan power and foster compromise.

However, the best hope we have to reform how legislators operate is to couple redistricting reform with term limit reform. There is currently an initiative in the signature-gathering phase that would alter term limits to allow legislators to serve a total of only 12 years, as opposed to the combined total of 14, but all 12 years could be served in the same house. The same initiative has already failed once because voters don’t trust legislators in Sacramento precisely because they are incapable of doing anything because of the term limits. Vicious cycle, anyone?!

The second biggest problem facing the state government is the cumbersome and arduous minority rule (aka the 2/3 rule) that exists over budgets and the raising of revenue.  Only two other states in America have these absurd requirements – Arkansas and Rhode Island – both of which have overwhelming majorities of Democrats in their state legislatures, which renders the potential for minority rule irrelevant. However, California is much too big and far too diverse to be able to legislate effectively when a super-majority is required. The solution to this problem is to repeal the 2/3 requirement, and Professor George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, has submitted language to the Secretary of State’s office for an initiative repealing the minority rule. The initiative will hopefully appear on the ballot next year… so go vote!

The somewhat well-intentioned but woefully misguided California electorate has created a perfect storm that has whisked the State Capitol off to OZ and the munchkins have  stormed the building, eaten the legislators, and are now starting to draft legislation (Sadly this is a somewhat more appealing scenario than Sacramento currently finds itself in).  Over and over, Californians have said in polls that we want everything government has to offer: top notch services to everyone who needs them, a well trained police and firefighter force, beautiful parks and open space, pristine roads and highways, and the best schools and universities in the country.  BUT, Californians do not want to pay taxes, not a dime.  In other words, Californians have gone completely schizophrenic, we want to have our cake and eat it too.  Well I have news for you California, we can’t.  The Legislature is stuck in an impossible situation of trying to balance these two conflicting demands from their constituents, and I don’t envy the task.

So what have we learned…  First, we as Californians need to decide what we want our government to look like.  Do we want a bigger government that provides the services and support we expect for a few extra tax dollars, or do we want to go Texas style and severely limit the responsibilities of state government in order to not have to pay as many taxes?  Then, we need to loosen the reigns on our state legislators and let them do their jobs.  We hire them every two or four years so that we don’t have to worry about every little thing in state government, and if we don’t like the job they are doing then we can fire them… it’s called an election.

Fall 2009

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