California: Reforming Ourselves Into Oblivion
By Peter Schrag
As the Sacramento Democrats huff and puff about Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of their gimmick-heavy budget and the punditocracy decides which of them is most at fault, the real story gets missed -- again.
The most obvious culprit is the ever-more insular Republican cult, which has spent the past three decades exploiting California’s minority veto. It enables one third of the state’s legislators to out-vote the other two thirds on any tax or other revenue increase.
Beyond that is an electorate that can’t make up its collective mind what it wants – or rather, stubbornly demands California services with Mississippi taxes. And beyond that there are thirty years of “reforms” and ballot box budgeting that have so convoluted the system it hardly functions at all.
The most recent of those fixes was Proposition 25 that the voters passed last November, which lowers the two-thirds vote required to pass the budget to a simple majority, but leaves intact the supermajority needed to raise taxes.
For a lot of the liberals who backed it as the desirable half-loaf that was better than nothing, last week’s budget fracas must have occasioned a bit of second thinking and brought another reminder of the law of unintended consequences. Beware of what you wish for.
Now it’s the majority Democrats who have to take the rap for deep cuts to schools and social services, rising university tuition and all the other public agony that all-cuts budgets impose and/or the kind of budget gimmickry that Brown’s veto temporarily (at least) saved them from last week.
Now the Republicans have the best of all possible worlds: They can have their way. They can ratchet down taxes, starve the universities and screw kids and the poor by doing absolutely nothing and take almost none of the blame.
Since the 1970s, we’ve reformed ourselves to the brink of oblivion. The most obvious of those reforms was the idiocy of Proposition 13 in 1978, which not only put local property taxes into a straitjacket but, more important, shifted a major part of what used to be local authority to the state. Thanks to Proposition 13, it’s the state that now controls the local property tax.
Because the state (then also governed by Jerry Brown) immediately began to bail out the locals, replacing a major share of the revenues they lost in property taxes with its own funds, it began the era of fiscal irresponsibility and confusion that’s gotten more convoluted by the year.
Who’s responsible when the streets don’t get paved or the school roof leaks, or there’s no money for band or libraries or school counselors, the city council or the school board for wasteful spending and mismanagement or the state for failing to provide the funding?
Who puts the strain on the state budget, legislators creating warm and fuzzy new programs or voters with initiatives like California’s multi-billion-dollar three-strikes sentencing law or the $3 billion stem cell bond (total cost $6 billion with interest) or countless other bonds, all for nice programs, but none of them providing a dime of new revenues to pay for them?
There were some old fossils and a few notorious crooks in the legislature before 1990, when voters passed California’s very tight term-limits law. But now that freshmen have to chair committees charged with complex matters of water law, insurance regulation, school finance and countless other matters, how many of us still believe that Sacramento has become a better place because of it?
How can legislators really care about the long-term consequences of their actions when they’ll all be gone and forgotten before most of those consequences become apparent?
Delay, denial, deferral and sheer gimmickry, the things that Brown again complained about in his budget veto, are almost inevitable in a term-limited legislature. Why not sell state buildings for a quick billion or two when it’s the next guys who’ll have to figure out how to pay to rent them back? Why not mortgage the lottery or the income from the national tobacco suit settlement?
But beneath our dysfunctional political structure, lies the political culture from which it grew: the myth that we’re badly overtaxed; the virulent individualism that’s replaced the communitarian ethic that helped make California the great state it once was; the great gap between the electorate, which is still whiter, older, and more affluent than California’s increasingly brown minority-majority population as a whole.
In time, as our Asian and Latino population grows, as the white population declines and as both the ethnic and generation gaps shrink, we’ll slowly return to a somewhat more seamless politics.
In time the voters will again look more like the general population and make decisions on services not for “others” but for people like themselves and their families.
That’ll start to be apparent in the new electoral districts now being drawn, districts that, with the increase in Latino voters in places like the Inland Empire, will be less and less safe for Republicans. In another generation, the rapidly rising rates of inter-ethnic marriage will also begin to make our current ethnic categories ever more blurry or maybe render them politically meaningless altogether. That can’t come a day too soon.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.