California, Take Two

California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, University of California Press, 224 pages, $19.95.

How broken -- and broke -- is California? Let me count the ways.

The state, which is home to one of every eight Americans, ranks third among the states in the percentage of workers who are unemployed. Ten of the nation's 12 metropolitan areas where unemployment is 15 percent or higher are in California. The state's construction industry, which had underpinned the economies of both Southern California and inland California throughout most of the last decade, has lost 43 percent of its jobs since it peaked in mid-2006.

Politically and governmentally, the once Golden State is in just as bad a fix as it is economically. Facing its worst economic crisis since the 1930s, state government is profoundly gridlocked, incapable of addressing both the state's immediate and long-term needs. Legislatively, Sacramento makes Washington look like a well-oiled machine.

As I write, the state's controller has announced that California soon will be issuing IOUs in lieu of paychecks and bill payments -- for the second consecutive year -- due to the now-routine failure of the Legislature and the governor to pass a budget. If the approval rating of the Legislature drops six more points in the polls, it will be in single digits. And one recent poll actually turned up the happy tidbit that if current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were now pitted in an election against former Gov. Gray Davis -- who was ousted in the 2003 recall election in which Schwarzenegger became governor -- Arnold would lose.

This last bit of polling may reflect a fair assessment of Schwarzenegger's tenure as governor: Certainly, his refusal to raise or levy taxes (California is the nation's only oil-rich state not to levy an oil severance tax) to close the annual $20 billion-or-so budget shortfall has contributed greatly to the decline in California's public services and infrastructure upkeep. But I'd go easy on Arnold on this one. The real meaning of his descent into the sub-Gray Davis depths is that any governor, given California's political makeup and its constitutional arrangements, is condemned to failure.

That's also the conclusion of two of the shrewdest California-ologists now practicing -- Joe Mathews, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and Schwarzenegger biographer, and Mark Paul, a former Sacramento Bee editorialist and deputy state treasurer, both now affiliated with the New America Foundation. In California Crackup, Mathews and Paul provide the best explanation we've yet had of the scope and sources of the state's governmental dysfunctionality. More important, they also provide the most far-reaching and thoughtful proposals for reinventing California's government -- so far -- reaching and thoughtful, in fact, that their recommendations should be considered in every capital where small-d democrats find themselves banging their heads against the wall in sheer frustration.

Like most observers of California politics, Mathews and Paul note that California is the only state to require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature both to pass a budget and to raise taxes -- requirements that annually grind the Legislature (in both houses, majority Democratic but a little over one-third Republican) to a halt. They note, as well, that these party ratios aren't changing any time soon: Coastal California, where most Californians live, is deeply Democratic and largely liberal, while inland California remains Republican and conservative at least for the time being. (My own belief is that in 20 years, inland California may become so heavily Hispanic that it will turn Democratic, too. How much of the state will still be standing by then is anybody's guess.)

Mathews and Paul go beyond the other observers, though, in attributing California's paralysis to three conflicting modes of lawmaking: majoritarian in its election of plurality-winner-take-all legislators; anti-majoritarian -- consensual in its two-thirds vote requirements; and superseding majoritarian in its reliance on voter initiatives (which may be substantively anti-majoritarian, as was 1978's Proposition 13, which required, among other things, a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes). Fully assembled, the California system of government thus enshrines both majority and minority rule. The resulting paralysis (and the unsustainable rise of bonded indebtedness, as more and more public projects are funded by bonds than by budgets) should surprise no one.

The authors' proposed solutions create a new system of majority rule with minority input -- though not so much input that the system becomes self-negating. Besides eliminating the two-thirds vote requirements, they call for creating large, multi-representative districts in which, through proportional-representation voting, coastal Republicans and inland Democrats will be able to win some seats in Sacramento. They call for establishing a substantial rainy-day fund to enable the state to get through economic downturns. They call for making government more comprehensible and transparent -- shifting to a unicameral legislature, reducing the state's seven constitutional officers to two (a more powerful governor and a secretary of state to run elections), and eliminating the thousands of special districts across the state that put essentially invisible elected officials and their appointees in charge of water projects, air quality, mosquito abatement, and God only knows what else.

Mathews and Paul take special care to deconstruct and reconstruct the state's ludicrous initiative processes. How ludicrous? Consider: Every decade or so, voters are bewildered to find a measure on their ballots that makes changes to the state's regulations on chiropractors. Why? Because an initiative passed in 1922 required all changes in chiropractic regulations to come before the voters, whether they want them to or not.

It is easier to qualify initiatives in California than it is in any other state, and similarly harder to modify them than it is anyplace else. The authors call for making the former task harder and the second easier and for strengthening referenda -- in which voters can modify legislatively enacted laws -- at initiatives' expense. These all are moves in the right direction.

Whether the reforms that Mathews and Paul lay out will ever be enacted is open to doubt. My guess is that they would have to emerge from a successful gubernatorial campaign such as that which Progressive Hiram Johnson waged in 1910. Raging against the two major parties for their obeisance to the Southern Pacific Railroad and other major corporations, Johnson ran on a platform of creating more nonpartisan offices, ending patronage, and establishing the initiative, referendum, and recall. While many of his reforms haven't worked as intended -- the Southern Pacific Railroads of today dominate the initiative process with their money as their forebears dominated the Legislature in times past -- Johnson certainly provides a lesson to today's reformers on how to reshape government. Unfortunately, neither Jerry Brown nor Meg Whitman, California's two current candidates for governor, is running that kind of campaign.

Nonetheless, the reforms that Mathews and Paul put forth are neither utopian nor unduly partisan. Greater majority rule would be offset by greater minority representation. Initiatives would be fewer but smarter and more effective. Theirs are certainly the best ideas for rebuilding California's government that the state has seen since -- well, probably ever. Not to end on too upbeat a note, however, it's worth mentioning that no such book exists on how to fix California's economy, which, since the end of the Cold War decimated the state's huge aerospace industry, has risen and fallen on two bubbles that burst -- the dot-com industry and housing construction. What California needs is not just a government that works again but also a vibrant economy with a thriving middle class. Neither looks to be anywhere on the horizon.

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