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Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good

Joseph Palermo: The Constitutional straight-jacket that keeps the state government in gridlock and voters in despair is the same institutional structure that brought the pathetically unqualified body builder into the governorship in the first place.
R. Jeffrey Lustig

R. Jeffrey Lustig

Remaking California

R. Jeffrey Lustig has compiled (and contributed to) an amazing set of useful essays that examine the many maladies plaguing California's politics and public institutions and provide food for thought that points to possible remedies. Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good, is the most important book on contemporary California politics to be published in many years.

These articles, from scholars, journalists, and other commentators, primarily seek ways out of California's dilapidated and dysfunctional governmental gridlock. They offer historical context, racial and ethnic histories, and an analytical framing of the big debates now raging in the Golden State from immigration to the function of political parties, to the "two-thirds" requirement and reforming the state's Constitution.

Lustig offers three cogent and elegantly argued essays, "California at the Edge"; "Voting, Elections, and the Failure of Representation in California"; and "A People's Convention for California." His "California at the Edge" leads off the work where Lustig shows that although California's politics are often talked about as being "broken," it's "clearly not broken for everyone." Corporations and wealthy individuals have been able to increase their share of the state's wealth over the last two decades often at the expense of the greater good.

Lustig's later chapters not only identify the causes of the state's political crisis but also point to ways out of it. Few political analysts have a better grasp of what plagues California's institutions than Lustig, who is a Professor of Government at California State University, Sacramento, and his articles shed light on the state's problems where more often than not there is only heat. He has culled a selection of diverse scholarly voices to fill out the volume's other essays that establish Remaking California as an invaluable book for anyone seeking to better understand the state's deep political troubles and possibly to begin organizing to alleviate them.

Lustig casts a wide net by including essays from varying ideological viewpoints. The second essay that appears in this volume is by the veteran Sacramento Bee Capitol reporter and analyst, Dan Walters, whose proclivities lean toward blaming the public employee unions and the Democratic Party for the state's crisis. Walters is smart and does his homework but his forte is to bemoan the problems inherent in California politics without offering any viable solutions. No one is going to argue with Walters when he declares that California is a political basket case. But his analysis in his essay titled "Decline and Fall," though demonstrating a respect for facts and clarity that one would expect from a conscientious journalist, unlike almost all the other essays, lacks any fruitful suggestions about how California might dig itself out of the pit it finds itself in.

One contradiction that stands out in Walters' essay in Remaking California is his take on the effect term limits has had on governance. Although Walters acknowledges that Proposition 140, passed in 1990, which set term limits for legislators and eliminated their pensions "made serving in the legislature a less attractive career option," he concludes that "while term limits didn't improve the legislature's performance, they probably didn't diminish it much either." (p. 34) This assertion contradicts every other essay in the book where the other authors argue that term limits have been an unmitigated disaster for the state government, strengthening lobbyists and corporate interests and producing weak and inexperienced lawmakers who cannot begin to grasp the complexities of their offices in so short a time period, especially with issues like the budget, immigration, and water allocation staring them in the face.

Walters not only disagrees on term limits with the other contributors to the book, he apparently disagrees with himself, stating in subsequent paragraphs that term limits did in fact contribute to gridlock and dysfunction when he writes about "the ideological polarization and domination by outside interests born of term limits and gerrymandered districts." (p. 36) (The only good I can see coming out of Prop 140 was the unseating of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown whose entrenchment seemed that it could only be overcome via term limits. Willie Brown's style of "governance" was on full display recently when he was out shilling in favor of PG&E's monopoly power grab, Proposition 16, which thankfully the voters had enough sense to reject.)

Several authors in Remaking California point out that although California's population consists of 43 percent white people, these citizens make up about 65 percent of the voting population. In addition, as Ronald Schmidt, Sr. explains in his essay, "California's Political Demography," Latinos in California as of 2006 constituted 36 percent of the state's population but only 17 percent of its voters. (p. 123) Anyone familiar with Walters' reporting for the Bee knows which group of voters he is talking to.

Professor Lenny Goldberg's piece, "Proposition 13: Tarnish on the Golden Dream," is a superb short essay on all of the unintended (and some intended) consequences of the property tax "revolt" of 1978. "Between 1974 and 1978, assessments on single-family homes rose by 120 percent," Goldberg writes, "while business property assessments increased by only 26 percent." No wonder there was a white middle-class tax revolt! But Goldberg also shows how big corporations and business associations, including massive commercial real estate holdings, have benefited disproportionately from Prop 13, and that the anti-tax measure "meant an immediate loss to local governments of $5.8 billion." (p. 45) By May 1979, Goldberg notes, "the public sector had laid off one hundred thousand employees, seventy-two thousand of them in schools." (p. 45) It would be difficult to find a better argument made for the so-called split-roll (allowing family-owned houses to remain under Prop 13 protection but not commercial property) than the one Goldberg lays out in this compelling article.

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Goldberg also takes on the devastating impact of the "two-thirds" rule to pass new taxes that Prop 13 enshrined in the state Constitution. "As a matter of democratic decision making as well as implementation," Goldberg writes, "this system is highly problematic. It means that every 'no' vote on a tax is worth twice a 'yes' vote in terms of getting final approval." And therefore "over the years hundreds of local tax proposals have been defeated, not because they received less than a majority, but because they received less than a supermajority." (p. 50; 51)

Most Californians are unfamiliar with the procedures of governance and blame the party "in power" in the legislature for the stalemate on budgets and taxation, which for many years has been the Democrats. But the reality is more complicated: the Democratic majority receives all the blame and the wrath from voters but none of the credit for any accomplishments; while a recalcitrant and extremist Republican "minority" that is as crazy as anything that might leap from Sarah Palin's twitter feed maintains a stranglehold on the state's finances without ever having to cop to the fact that they are the ones responsible for this sorry state of affairs, which has de-legitimized the state government in the eyes of most Californians.

The least convincing essay of the collection, (along with Walters'), is the one by Professor Emeritus of Government, John Syer, titled "Reforming the Executive." Unbelievably, after witnessing seven years of Arnold Schwarzenegger's catastrophic governorship, Syer argues in favor of increasing the powers of the governor by "unifying" the state's executive through eliminating the seven elected offices that currently share executive powers with the governor. "Eliminating seven elected offices does not guarantee that solid candidates will run for governor in the future," Syer writes. "The stronger the governorship is, however, the more likely it is to attract talented leaders." (p. 98) (I don't know how anyone who has lived through seven years of Arnold Schwarzenneger's governmental clusterf@#k, or who now spies Meg Whitman's opulent candidacy can come to that conclusion.) "As world supplies of food, water, and oil become more scarce," Syer continues, "Californians must select governors who are willing to speak hard truths, willing to resist entrenched interests, and willing to forgo short-term popularity.

Governors of California must be able to direct administrative teams that know how to solve complex problems." (p. 98) Okay, two points: 1). Gubernatorial candidates always promise to show these attributes; and 2). With the Constitution as it is how strengthening the executive powers of the governor is going to help "solve" California's "complex problems" is anybody's guess. What would California look like today if Schwarzenegger had the power, as Syer recommends, to appoint the Controller, the Treasurer, and the Attorney General? "The justification for a fractured executive in California is no longer persuasive," Syer concludes, "the need for a unified executive is more apparent than ever." (p. 98) At least Syer is trying to offer what he believes to be a partial solution to California's political gridlock, (although he's dead wrong), Walters offers nothing.

In an excellent essay, Osha Meserve and Erik Ringelberg outline California's perennial water crisis and discuss its unsustainable nature and its fueling of the North-South divide that plagues the state. They point out that the eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley are among the most productive on the planet growing "more than $20 billion worth of crops each year, more than the rest of California combined, and more than any other state." (pp. 158-159) The Sacramento Delta region provides "a portion of the drinking water supplies for 23 million people from the Bay Area down to San Diego."

The public's water supply is competing with the diversion to feed the voracious appetite of huge private agribusiness interests guaranteed to cause political and regional conflicts "for the foreseeable future," Meserve and Ringelberg conclude. (After reading this chapter I was struck by how foolish and shortsighted Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's decision was to allow the city manager to turn over to the multinational corporation, Nestle, rights to privatize part of Sacramento's municipal water supply for its own profits while charging the company less than a penny per gallon without offering any resistance.) Meserve and Ringelberg clearly show that no community in California can afford to give away this precious resource and that the state must not continue to support wasteful and unsustainable water use through its often bizarre and numerous public subsidies.

Part IV of Remaking California is dedicated to possible remedies for the state's ailments. Mark Paul, Micah Weinberg, and Jeff Lustig, in two lengthy and substantial essays, pretty much lay out exactly what needs to be done to save the state: the outdated 1879 Constitution that was written at a time when California had fewer than one million people must be reformed and substantially changed. It must be brought into the 21st Century to provide a template for governance for a political entity now encompassing the eighth largest economy in the world that has a population nearing 40 million people. The old Constitution, with its totally dysfunctional amendments, such as term limits, the two-thirds rule, and laws restricting how the General Fund is spent, is a straight-jacket on the state suffocating its vibrancy and turning off citizens to the very concept of "representative" government. In one recent poll of Californians the legislature had a 9 percent approval rating and the governor about 20 percent. These numbers are just about as low as they can statistically go, which raises the question of whether a system deserves to be called a "democracy" if it is held in such low esteem by its people.

Given the constraints of the state's antiquated and anachronistic Constitution the politicians are hamstrung and the public sees them as deserving nothing but our complete contempt. The system is broken, but as Lustig points out in the lead essay, it's not broken for everyone. The corporations and other wealthy private interests seem to love the current failed system just the way it is because they never have to worry about facing an empowered electorate. The result will be that any attempt to truly reform the Constitution will be opposed by the kind of political money we've seen Meg Whitman throw around like so much pocket change.

Remaking California is a superb primer for anybody who wishes to digest California's problems and work to save the Golden State. The long slide into insolvency and mediocrity we've witnessed for the past quarter century, but brought to a kind of apotheosis under Arnold Schwarzenegger's catastrophic governorship, must not be allowed to continue.

The Constitutional straight-jacket that keeps the state government in gridlock and voters in despair is the same institutional structure that brought the pathetically unqualified body builder into the governorship in the first place. Unless California's citizens, who have among them some of the most creative and smartest people in the world, pursue fundamental reforms the state could end up as a Balkanized corporate feudal system with Queen Meg ruling by moneyed Divine Right. Remaking California points the way, but will the citizens follow?

Joe Palermo

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo