Monday, October 26, 2009

Rolling The Dice on California

California is my adopted home. I can't imagine living anywhere else. I have my choice of two major cities if I want to experience some urban life. Then there are the hundreds of miles of mostly unspoiled coast. Then there are the mountains. Then there is all that great produce. Then there is the we-don't-care-one-way-or-the-other-how-eccentric-you-are mentality. It's a wonderful state.

That's all in the plus column. But there is one big minus. California's government stinks.

It wasn't always this way. But in the 1960s, an amendment was added to the constitution requiring a 2/3 vote to pass a state budget. Then in 1978, citizens overwhelmingly passed Prop. 13, which slashed revenue from property taxes. Over subsequent years, gerrymandering divided state legislature districts along ideological lines. Finally, in 1990 Californians passed Proposition 45, which created term limits for politicians.

The end result is that state politics are dominated amateur politicians who tend to be ideologues because their districts are either on the left or the right. They have no experience with or desire to compromise. The state has no money during recessions because of the absence of a property tax cushion. Budgets would be hard enough to pass if the politicians knew how to compromise and you needed a simple majority. Neither is the case.

California is creeping backwards. Our public schools are pathetic. Our state universities don't have the classes necessary for students to graduate in four years. Our flagship universities are forced to charge high tuition, keeping many from modest income homes out. Without education, there is no reliable, future high-quality workforce.

Those are just education issues. Our prisons are overcrowded and prison policy is heavily influenced by the prison guard union. Our Department of Motor Vehicles looks like something out of 1982. It just goes down the line. My state is running on fumes.

Obviously, I'm not the only person who knows the our state government is broken. A majority of the voting public feels that way too. But polls indicate that while they know there is a problem, they don't want to solve it. Voters continue to believe in overwhelming numbers that Prop. 13 was a good thing and remains a good thing. They continue to believe that term limits are a good thing. While they know California is short of cash, a majority believes that the shortfall is simply due to fat and inefficiencies in government. If only it were so.

There is one ray of hope in public opinion. A majority believes that the California constitution needs to be changed via a constitutional convention. So while on specifics, the California voter is out to lunch, they have left a potential way out of our mess by, in general, supporting revamping the constitution.

There's a group out there trying to take advantage of this ray of hope, Repair California. It's an organization started by a consortium of businessmen from Northern California, the Bay Area Council. This is not some left-wing cabal. It's not a right-wing cabal. It's a group of people that knows that when government runs well, businesses can run well. And it's fed up with the screwed up nature of California's government.

This week Repair California will announce that they will be placing two initiatives on the November 2010 ballot. One will allow for initiatives to call for a constitutional convention (currently constitutional conventions cannot be called this way; that power was stripped many years ago by the state legislature). The other explicitly will call for a constitutional convention. The convention will be limited in scope, focusing strictly on governance issues. Taxes will not be one of the issues on the table.

Here's the kicker. The proposal will call for participants to be chosen by lottery. That's right. Any shmo potentially can be part of the constitutional convention. At first blush, this seems ridiculous. But the alternatives probably are worse. You could have an election. You could have participants appointed. Money and corruption would influence both.

I'm all for rolling the dice and having a constitutional convention composed of lottery winners.There of course need to be mechanisms in place to make sure these lottery winners aren't influenced by money once they are selected. The key is that no matter what they end up doing, we can't possibly have anything worse than we have now. They aren't going to make budget approvals require more than a two thirds majority. I hope not at any rate. Whatever they create will likely be an improvement. Hopefully, that improvement will be significant. We have no place to go but up.

1 comment:

Ralph said...

I grew up in California, so I've been watching this slow-motion train wreck of greed and stupidity for many years. Now I'm considering whether to move my nascent company from Durham, NC to Silicon Valley. Despite the advantages of Silicon Valley for a company like mine, the spectacular dysfunctionality of CA politics is giving me pause.