“Will California become America’s first failed state?”
– Headline last Sunday in Britain’s Guardian.
Friends here ask whether California will be OK. They have read the news about a state that seems to be spiraling downward, and they worry. In the American mythology, the Golden State has always been the place that promises new possibilities, which means that even New Yorkers want the best for their West Coast rival.
It is not just the economy. California, New York or Montana, Americans are making do in hard times.
What’s different about California is the abundant evidence that state government is brain-dead when it comes to responding to a world that is changing. From chronic budget deficits to prison overcrowding to water shortages to failing schools to proposals to shutter state parks, the news from California is usually bad.
For a proud Californian, this question – will California be OK? – is tough to answer. You want to be hopeful, but no one has offered a sure way out of this disaster.
Over the decades, state government has expanded into what one state lawmaker described as the Winchester Mystery House of governments. Take a government structure designed to solve 19th century problems. Add a layer here and a layer there and another layer over there. Toss in a ballot measure, or 50, and the most convoluted tax laws in America. Pretty soon, you have a framework of state and local government that can’t get out of its own way.
The County of Sonoma recently decided to surrender control of the county’s only landfill rather than deal with a single-purpose regulatory agency. Couldn’t two government agencies work out their differences for the good of the public at large? Apparently not.
At the moment, calls for a constitutional convention represent California’s only hope for a solution. Unfortunately, there are many ways that a constitutional convention can run off the rails. If the same interest groups responsible for maintaining the current dysfunction hold sway at a convention, the state could end up in a worse place – with an electorate even more disillusioned.
At a recent gathering of reformers, everyone agreed that reform was essential, but there was no agreement about what those reforms should be. Some seek incremental changes, and some want to start with a blank sheet. How about a single-house legislature with smaller districts? Why not consolidate – or abolish – counties? The lists go on.
No one will put state government back together again so long as the hard-right factions in the Republican Party and the public employees unions and their allies in the Democratic Party can trump the views of a majority of voters. For me, that means two fundamental changes:
One, establish open primaries that could elect candidates that aren’t hooked to the short leash held by narrow interests. State voters will get the chance next year.
Two, eliminate the requirement that a state budget can only be passed by two-thirds majorities in each house of the legislature.
Yeah, I know. Conservatives think this protects them from higher taxes.
But not even the most conservative, anti-tax states in the nation see the wisdom of two-thirds majorities to pass a budget. The current arrangement is anti-democratic, and it doesn’t protect California from big spenders. It only guarantees that state government will continue to be paralyzed and deficit-ridden.
Unfortunately, there is zero chance that state voters will agree. Voters who don’t trust their political institutions continue to prefer political paralysis, even if it means long-term economic stagnation.
The recent unveiling of an ambitious plan to rewrite the state tax code provides the latest evidence. Whatever one thinks of the specific proposals offered up by the Commission on the 21st Century Economy, it is a truism that the crazy-quilt of tax laws that now controls the state’s economy is a form of idiocy.
The heavy reliance on the income tax guarantees wild swings in revenue. Without an independent source of revenue, local government remains at the mercy of an isolated and erratic state government. And cities’ dependence on sales taxes forces them into destructive land-use decisions, simply because they need the revenue generated by sprawling shopping complexes.
But any attempt to change tax laws is easily shot down by opponents who play to the popular cynicism. In this instance, business groups attacked the proposal for a net receipts tax, and labor groups attacked the proposal for lowering income tax rates, and the plan was, for all intents and purposes, dead on arrival.
When New Yorkers ask about California, I tell them that this is the crux of the problem: Voters are cynical because government is dysfunctional, and government is dysfunctional because voters are cynical.
So, my New York friends ask, maybe one of your new crop of gubernatorial candidates can put California together again?
It would be pleasant to think so, but even if these new candidates were gifted leaders – and they’re not – the problems are systemic.
Not so long ago, a popular non-politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger, rode into town on a promise to make it all right, but he didn’t account for the fact that nothing else had changed.
And nothing else did change. The same politicians controlled by the same special-interest groups continue to wage partisan warfare while the walls are collapsing all-around them. And we are stuck with the same hodge-podge of government agencies, which are redundant and wasteful, and often work at cross-purposes.
So, here we are. There is always hope, I tell New Yorkers. I’m just not sure where to find it. Maybe a constitutional convention will work. Maybe.