Six years ago, the brawny movie star rode into town on a promise to kick butt and take names. Remember? Unfortunately, his good intentions ran headlong into the immoveable object. These days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is just another garden-variety politician, humbled by his failure to slay the beast that is state government.
In Tuesday’s special election, state voters all but disavowed their government and in the process handed Schwarzenegger an embarrassing defeat. An angry electorate wanted nothing to do with the latest hash of budgetary gimmicks designed to postpone the inevitable reckoning.
For most of the last decade, state government has been kicking the can down the road – refusing, in good times and bad, to bring spending in line with revenues. Now the economy is in the toilet, the bills are coming due, and there is nowhere to hide.
We’re talking about furloughing cops and teachers, about the early release of prison inmates, about denying health care to children, about local agencies filing for bankruptcy, about a fire-prone state which may not be able to pay for fire protection.
We’re talking about a state government abrograting its most basic responsibilities.
On Thursday, Staff Writer Guy Kovner filed an early tally of the damage to come – $16 million from the county general fund, $28 million from Sonoma County schools, $6.4 million from cities. These cuts, of course, are in addition to reductions imposed earlier in the year.
In the beginning, Schwarzenegger’s mistake was believing that his celebrity and natural optimism would persuade political insiders to do what’s best for California.
What he didn’t understand is that the government is broken, and nothing will change until we fix it. Other candidates for governor will come along – they’re lining up already – but it doesn’t matter.
At a meeting of reform-minded groups last February, a Democratic state senator from Contra Costa provided an instructive metaphor for what state government has become. It’s the Winchester Mystery House of governments, said Mark DeSaulnier, “We’ve built lots of rooms, but we didn’t build hallways to connect them.”
After decades of adding a room here and a room there, what we have is a government that doesn’t work and can’t work.
Inside the walls of the Capitol, the ideologues who control the Republican Party bear little resemblance to the Republicans you know in your hometown. These folks live in an alternate universe, a place where Calvin Coolidge is president and Rush Limbaugh is an intellectual giant.
The Democrats inside the Capitol owe their careers to public employees unions that believe it’s OK to spend now and find the money later. They don’t think government needs to be subject to the same economic realities as everyone else.
It would be impolite, of course, to mention the problems caused by voters such as you and me. Yes, we voted for more spending and lower taxes – and then complained about deficits. Yes, we voted for this ballot mandate and that ballot mandate – and then complained when government couldn’t get out of its own way.
But we meant to do the right things, didn’t we? So, I won’t mention how you and I share responsibility for the sad state of California.
We live in “the ungovernable state,” the Economist magazine informed us last week.
About Tuesday’s election, the magazine explained, “The occasion has thus become an ugly summary of all that is wrong with California’s governance, and that list is long.”
California has become a state in which:
-The primary system disenfranchises mainstream voters – and protects the advantages of ideologues and special interests.
-Proposition 13 mandates a tax system that is, in equal parts, unjust, irrational and undemocratic.
-Local government has to beg state government for its leftovers.
-Every half-baked idea has a chance of being voted into law.
-A third of the legislators are granted the power to torpedo the will of the majority.
-The state’s financial well-being is left to five people who lock themselves in a room at five minutes to midnight.
Why would anyone be surprised that this government doesn’t work?
After years of mismanagement and last week’s rejection of the latest stopgap measures, there will be hell to pay. Tens of thousands of government workers will lose their jobs. Programs once considered essential will be eliminated. (At a time in which students need extra help, the Petaluma school district closed its summer school last week.) Services to children, the disabled and the elderly will be slashed – or eliminated. Qualified students will be turned away from state universities. The list goes on.
Soon, perhaps in 2010, we will test whether Californians have the courage to unload a political system that is sinking of its own weight.
Reformers, including leaders of the Bay Area Council and the group call California Forward, want to ask voters to authorize a constitutional convention. (You can learn more at the Repair California Web site here.)
The complexities of a constitutional convention lend themselves to controversy. How will delegates be chosen? Will they be tasked to focus on a narrow list of topics, or invited to start over?
After six years of a governor who wanted to reform government, what we know is this: We can’t prosper with a system we have now. We will fix it, or be doomed to more of the same.