Six key factors that have made California impossible to govern:
• Proposition 13: The fiscal effect of Proposition 13, the property tax limit measure passed in 1978, is only part of the damage the initiative did to California. After Proposition 13 passed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-dominated Legislature realigned — “tangled” would be more accurate — the relationship between state and local governments by effectively shifting control of remaining property-tax revenue to Sacramento. They took power and responsibility for health, welfare, schools and other local services away from city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, thereby establishing today’s chaotic maze of overlapping jurisdictions.
• Budget initiatives: Proposition 13 also ushered in an era of ballot-box budgeting, as fiscal initiatives became a favored special-interest tool. A series of post-13 initiatives — including measures creating the lottery, financing public schools by mathematical formula and earmarking revenues for special programs, from mental health to medical care — established an exquisitely complex state budget calculus that has hamstrung the rational operations of government.
• Gerrymandering: The once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps based on the census has created an increasingly partisan Capitol atmosphere. Reapportionment has become essentially an incumbent protection effort.
• Term Limits: Despite the claims of backers, the 1990 term-limits initiative did not get rid of career politicians — it simply changed the arc of their careers. Instead of spending decades in the same Assembly or Senate district seat, legislators position themselves for the next office — or job as a lobbyist — as soon as they arrive in Sacramento. The up-or-out system rewards short-term, self-interested political thinking more than long-term policymaking in the public interest.
• Boom-and-Bust taxation: Since Proposition 13, state government has become increasingly dependent on volatile sources of revenue — the sales, corporation and progressive personal income taxes — that correspond closely to the business cycle. When economic times are good, as during the dot-com and housing bubbles, money pours in and there’s little political incentive — in fact, term limits create a perverse disincentive — for long-term financial planning.
• The two-thirds vote: California is one of only three states requiring a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget, one of 16 requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes — and the only state to require both. The budget requirement has been in the state constitution since the New Deal; the tax restriction began with Proposition 13. In the polarized atmosphere of Sacramento, the two-thirds rules effectively hand a veto to the minority party. Under these conditions, stalemate and deadlock on key fiscal issues have become the political norm.
So what can be done about the dysfunction?
In the next few weeks, a blue-ribbon commission is set to recommend sweeping changes in the tax system to stabilize revenue collections. Voters in fall 2008 approved Proposition 11, which takes away the Legislature’s power to draw its own districts in favor of an independent commission. In 2010, as they elect a new governor, Californians also will vote on a system of “open primary” elections aimed at aiding moderates, and they also will probably decide on one or more initiatives to dump the two-thirds budget vote requirement.
California Forward, a bipartisan good government group financed by major foundations, is crafting proposals to conform government systems and processes to modern management methods. And the business-oriented Bay Area Council is pushing initiatives for a state constitutional convention, the first since 1879, to wipe the slate clean and build a new rational structure for state government.