Coming Now: Another Big Fix for California
By Peter Schrag
In a century of good government reform proposals, many of them better forgotten, last week’s offering from California Forward probably rates as among the most ambitious and, just maybe, among the most intriguing.
It’s hardly a panacea for California’s dysfunctional and widely distrusted government. It doesn’t address the two-thirds requirement in the legislature to increase revenues and the veto power it gives political minorities. It doesn’t touch the state’s badly divided population and the fractured political culture and partisanship that underlie both the dysfunction and the distrust. It skirts even a mention of the problems of the initiative process. If passed, it might make things worse.
Yet despite its yawn-inducing title, the proposed “Government Performance and Accountability Act,” a constitutional amendment California Forward’s Action Fund hopes to take to the ballot next year, hits a broad swath of inviting targets.
Among them: an opaque and sometimes deceptive state legislative process that, among other things, allows bills to pass in the dark final hours of each session without review or public notice; the creation or expansion of programs or the approval of tax cuts without corresponding funding to pay for them; the absence of performance measures for many hoary state and local programs; the convoluted state-local fiscal relationship and lack of accountability it allows.
The foundation-funded California Forward, maybe the most prominent of today’s goo-goo reform groups, is composed in considerable part of recovering ex-politicians and proudly, even fiercely, non-partisan.
Thus, as might be expected, its 22-page proposal lists some warm and fuzzy items as criteria for the performance measures it would impose on all state and local agencies. In the new two-year state budget cycle it would establish to replace the annual budget process, each budget would have to include:
A statement of how the budget will promote the purposes of achieving a prosperous economy, quality environment, and community equity, by working to achieve at least the following goals: increasing employment; improving education; decreasing poverty; decreasing crime; and improving health.
That seems to cover almost everything except maybe curing cancer and stopping dental decay. It either imposes tremendous bureaucratic burdens on agencies in justifying their budgets or invites a great load of glittering generalities.
Still the general objective – to require a showing that budgets are related to currently relevant objectives and asking for outcome measures in achieving them could be a step away from automatic year-to-year appropriations based on little other than what was appropriated the year before.
It would impose similar requirements on local agencies and require them also to issue “a public report on progress in achieving the goals established by the local government entity.”
More important, the proposal, co-authored by Sunne McPeak, now CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, and former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, would void any legislation creating a new state program, enlarging an existing program or cutting any tax unless offsetting state program reductions or additional revenues or some combination of the two are provided in the bill.
The backers of the measure also hold high hopes in its provisions creating incentives for broader local agency collaboration. It aims at the creation of county-based Community Strategic Action Plans to reduce, the silos of agencies serving the same populations: schools, for example, foster care, health programs, law enforcement and others trying to work with the same children, but now sometimes barely talking to one another and occasionally trying to shut others out.
Given its scope, the proposal raises all sorts of questions, both in getting voter approval and in its implementation if it does get it.
*Once again, it seeks to create a trigger for times when the state faces unexpected fiscal “emergencies.” If the legislature doesn’t cut spending or raise revenues in such emergencies, the governor would then be able make his own cuts. But since revenues can only be raised by supermajorities but spending cuts require only a simple majority it again exacerbates the ratchet effect driving state services down. It’s an idea voters have rejected before.
*By establishing a two-year budget cycle, beginning always in odd years, it puts even more reliance on new freshman assembly members and senators in an era when term limits already create a fearful shortage of experience and when new arrivals often become committee chairs.
* Since the measure would affect every program and impose unprecedented accountability demands on every bureaucracy, state and local, it’s also likely to draw a lot of resistance.
We’ve debated for decades, for example, about the effect of long prison sentences on crime rates. Will the deep pockets prison guards union now consent quietly to a mandate requiring them to demonstrate every few years that what they’ve always claimed actually works? And if they do have to show they’re “decreasing crime” and generate a lot of smoke, will the voters care?
Or consider education: How much additional pressure will new constitutionally-mandated accountability measures create to raise test scores and other numbers? How much more will they drive things that can’t be easily quantified – creativity, innovation, the love of music or art -- out of the schools? Reforms almost always produce unintended consequences. Great reforms can produce great unintended consequences.
California Forward leaders are hopeful that they’ll get the funding, mostly from affluent individuals, to get their proposal to the ballot. The question it will raise is whether things are so bad that it’s worth the risk. It won’t “reboot California’s operating system,” as Sunne McPeak (quoting historian Kevin Starr) hopes it will. But it could make things marginally better. Could.
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 newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.