More ‘fixes’ won’t fix California

It’s easy to conclude that California may become, as former state librarian Kevin Starr put it, a “failed state.” It’s just too big, unruly and diverse to be effectively governed, commentators frequently say.

SACRAMENTO – It’s easy to conclude that California may become, as former state librarian Kevin Starr put it, a “failed state.” It’s just too big, unruly and diverse to be effectively governed, commentators frequently say. Californians are also said to be different from people in other, less-idyllic states: we’re not particularly civic-minded, well-read on national affairs or involved in the political process. We supposedly want it all – better schools, less congestion, a cleaner environment, etc. – yet are reluctant to pay for everything we want.

As all conventional wisdom goes, there is some truth here. And, of course, California Watchers have much ammunition as they complain about the dysfunction in our state government. The budget is nearly three months late and no legislator is in any rush to do anything about it. As one Capitol insider told me, Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles is treating the budget negotiations like a dispute between management and labor – as a confrontational “us vs. them” situation of the sort he used to handle when he was an organizer for a union representing grocery workers. So, don’t expect anything to get better soon.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, left, and State Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, walk to a budget meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican leaders at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Sept. 17, 2010. The meeting between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the four legislative leaders ended without reaching a deal on how to close California’s $19 billion deficit, marking the 79th day the state has gone without a resolution to the spending plan, breaking the old record of 78 days.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to detail many other problems the state is confronting, from crumbling infrastructure to soaring unemployment to crashing home values. The national media have been paying extra attention to the tarnished Golden State lately, given the depth of our problems. And good-government activists within California regularly propose various “solutions,” mostly designed to create new processes that promise to save the day.

Although the idea is on hold, a group of moderate business interests backed Repair California, which called for a constitutional convention to rework California’s governing framework. Now a new book from California writers Joe Mathews and Mark Paul offers comprehensive solutions. Called “California Crack Up: How Reform Broke The Golden State And How We Can Fix It,” the book argues that the worst thing isn’t the state’s decaying infrastructure, rotten schools, budget deficits and unfunded liabilities: “No. the worst thing about California’s fix is that, under the state’s current system of government, these problems can’t be fixed.”

They present a plan for a “new, integrated” system of government that attacks the polarized Legislature by expanding the number of legislators. The plan would also reduce the number of statewide elected officials (secretary of state, insurance commissioner, etc.), and advocates Instant Runoff Voting – a single statewide election rather than the primary and then a general election. It proposes vast changes in local government. “Hundreds, perhaps thousands of special districts need to go the way of the dinosaur,” the authors write. They also champion an increase in local governmental control and various technical reforms that would reduce voter reliance on the initiative process.

The ideas are a mixed bag. But regardless of the specifics, it’s clear that the authors have bought into the same line of thinking as most other recent reformers. They believe that various rules can be changed and governmental processes adjusted to help government become more efficient and accountable.

Not bad goals, but this really is like remodeling the living room while working around the elephant that’s snoring in the middle of it.

California does indeed have a dysfunctional system of government that needs to be reformed. Still, these critics who disparage voters for their ballot-box budgeting through support of various special-interest-driven initiatives have a point.

But they are left explaining why it’s more appropriate to depend wholly on a Legislature that thinks nothing of ignoring its most basic budget responsibilities and that is dominated by advocates for bigger government.

California is indeed ungovernable and its governments are rife with corruption. One need only read the headlines from this week, as Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley filed criminal charges against eight current and former city of Bell officials who used the city budget as their personal piggybank. This is big news in a political year. But Bell is an easy target. Other stories from the week confirm that while Bell might be an extreme case of looting, it is not as far out of the ordinary as one thinks.

The Sacramento Bee reported on Wednesday that retired government workers across the state “who voluntarily retired [and] went back to work part time in their old jobs” are receiving unemployment on top of their pensions after being laid off from their second job because of cutbacks.

That’s just the latest scam by government employees in a state facing a pension debt estimated to be as high as $500 billion.

There’s a short section blaming Prop. 13 for the growth in the power of public-sector unions, but little other discussion of this big problem by the authors or most other would-be reformers.

One can’t fix California without recognizing the degree to which the state’s public-sector unions have looted the place for their own benefit. The state’s government is far too big. It regulates and taxes too much. It seems to exist for the benefit of politically connected special interests. Reforming the state government without dealing with this reality is like trying to reform the public schools without admitting that the problem is that it is a monopoly system immune from the competitive pressures we know to be the source of high-quality and efficient services.

Sure, there are plenty of tweaks that can help. But those mostly are like putting a new roof on a house built on a crumbled foundation.

California’s problem has nothing to do with our disengaged public culture, an easily abused initiative process or too-few legislators. The problem here is the same as it is in many parts of Western Europe, where government has grown out of control. California has embraced the welfare state to a greater degree than most other states, which is why we have become a failed state more quickly than they have.

“Face it and fix it,” is how a former editor of mine always put it. Until Californians face reality, all the “fixes” are just window dressing.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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