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How To Rescue the Golden State from the Junk Heap

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Above: Council of Community Clinics Health Policy Director Gary Rotto goes on the record about how the state-issued IOUs will impact the services of local health clinics.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks to a joint session of the Legislature about...
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Above: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks to a joint session of the Legislature about California's troubled budget, at the State Capitol June 2, 2009 in Sacramento, California.

We didn’t need the Governor to tell us that California is in a financial disaster. After all, the state is paying for goods and services with IOUs. There is growing alarm that the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the sick children are on the verge of losing their safety net. What more needs to be said about a state legislature that can’t agree on a budget that was due July 1st?

The bad news is that of this writing, there is no agreement in Sacramento on how to fix the damage and no solution on the horizon. The good news is that there are plenty of suggestions for putting some controls on the state’s self-destructive behavior. But before the therapies are prescribed, the patient’s problem needs to be analyzed so that we can understand how our severely dysfunctional California became so afflicted.

  • The 2/3rds majority rule for the legislature to pass a budget or increase taxes is almost impossible to achieve because of political extremism. And to get those last few votes, deals are struck that are not necessarily in the public interest.

  • The legislature is polarized since California’s conservative base tends to live inland and its liberals along the coast;

  • Those legislative districts are set in concrete by the legislators themselves who carve out safe districts for their party every 10 years;

  • The competition really takes place in the primaries, where the very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats are favored. California has a modified closed primary which means Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats, and Decline to State voters usually have a choice if the individual party permits those “independents” to vote.

  • The legislature is full-time and fills those hours creating bills, politicking, visiting home districts, fund-raising, meeting with lobbyists, doing what politicians do, except successfully addressing the state’s budget and meeting the budget deadline.

  • With a delayed budget, large segments of the population suffer. But there’s no significant penalty levied on the governor or the legislators for their failures at providing a budget for the state.

With the problems defined, the next step is the fix. There are dozens of ideas for repairing parts of this impaired system. Several of them will be offered to the voters as initiatives next year, if they qualify for the ballot with verifiable and sufficient petition signatures.

  • Repeal the 2/3rds legislative vote requirement. A supermajority vote could be a more achievable 3/5ths, or even lower to 55 percent as favored by San Diego’s Democratic State Senator Denise Ducheny, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

  • Last November, the voters passed Proposition 11 and removed legislators’ power to redistrict their own districts. This is a step toward opening up the electoral process to more competition, which might lead to a less divisive state legislature.

  • The open primary will be back on the ballot. It won once, but was overturned in court. Perhaps this time it will stick and permit any voter to vote for anyone on the ballot and even permit the candidates not to have to list a party.

  • “The Citizen Legislature Act” is an initiative being readied for the June 2010 ballot which acknowledges that the overhaul of the legislature should start with making it a part-time endeavor to reduce unnecessary legislation, so the lawmakers can get down to the real business of government which should center on a balanced budget.

  • There is one initiative in the Attorney General’s office waiting to be prepared for circulation that would severely penalize the governor and the legislators if a budget is not passed by deadline. They would lose a significant percentage of their salaries as well as their elected offices and future elected offices. If that passes, you can expect a change.

  • Finally, there are several initiatives being prepared to call for a constitutional convention to completely re-visit and re-do California’s Constitution. The state hasn’t had a constitutional convention since 1878, although in many other states voters authorize constitutional conventions every 10 to 20 years. A makeover of our constitution would have to start with all of the above solutions to begin the restorative process if California is successfully retrieved from the junk heap.

  • Now it’s your turn. What would you add to my list of therapies?

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Avatar for user 'raffi1970'

raffi1970 | July 9, 2009 at 12:37 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

re: California budget crisis

There is a very simple solution to this crisis: bring together all the
interested people, citizens, organizations, legislators, the governor
for a two-2- 1/2 day conversation/conference on ending the
budget impasse using a highly participatory approach like Open Space
Technology. It has been used all over the world with all kinds of people
with amazing results.

Some examples here:

There is *what* we want to get done (break through the budget impasse)
and there is *how* we do it. The old ways of doing things in this time
of awesome change and complexity are no longer working. Recall
Einstein: "We can't solve problems by using the
same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

How we meet and gather is just as important as -if not more important
than- what we are trying to achieve. Process determines content. And
unless we engage all the players, the whole system, all the wisdom we
will not be able to deal with this budget crisis meaningfully.

Open Space Technology is one of the very simple, inexpensive, and
incredibly powerful approaches.

Read more about it here:

Also I recommend three books that offer invaluable context, perspective,
and solutions for the time we live in:

Harrison Owen's Practice of Peace
first chapter here:

Jim Rough's Society's Breakthrough (

and Tom Atlee's Tao of Democracy

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Avatar for user 'raffi1970'

raffi1970 | July 9, 2009 at 12:42 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

part two:

My hope would be that you'd bring these authors onto KPBS. I think it
would open up a whole world of possibilities for your listeners and for
politicians. Also it would open a very fresh, hopeful, and eye-opening perspective on where we are right now and how we can, with minimal resources, find our way out of this *together,* even emerge as...friends?!

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Avatar for user 'richardwinger'

richardwinger | July 9, 2009 at 8:53 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

The "top-two" initiative that Californians will vote on next year was defeated by the California voters in November 2004. The same idea was also defeated in Oregon in November 2008. However, it passed in Washington state in November 2004 and was used for the first time in Washington state in 2008.

The Washington state experience in 2008 rebuts all the presumptions set forth above. Turnout in the primary went down, compared to the 2004 primary in Washington state. Only one incumbent state legislator, and no members of Congress, were defeated in the 2008 primary in Washington state (out of 123 legislative races). The only real impact it had was that, for the first time since Washington had been a state, all minor party and independent candidates for statewide office and Congress were barred from the November ballot.

By contrast, in California in 2008, under our current system, four Assembly seats (out of 80) switched between the Democrats and Republicans (Democrats gained 3 seats and Republicans gained one seat). It is a myth that California districts prevent any meaningful results in the November election. Too many in the press endlessly recycle the same assumptions without looking at the facts.

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Avatar for user 'OakRaidFan'

OakRaidFan | July 9, 2009 at 9:05 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

The LAO (Legislative Analyst Office) has said that if Gov. Schwarzenegger had raised the VLF (Vehicle License Fee) back up to its statutorily-mandated level of 2.0 % upon taking office after the 2003 recall election, California would currently have a budget surplus. Instead, he lowered it down to 0.65%. Last month (June), he raised it to 1.15%, which is still almost one-half of where it should be, by law. Please publicize the above, for this is California's short-term budget solution. (The long-term solution is the business side of Prop. 13, which is a fight for another day).

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Avatar for user 'Conor'

Conor | July 10, 2009 at 8:33 a.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

There are many things that need to be done to reform the system in the coming years, but let’s not forget about what should and should not be done now. In the rush to pass the budget, there are several proposals that will provide the state additional revenue this year by using fuzzy accounting or gimmicks. It’s perfectly clear that these proposals, like the three percent withholding on independent contractors, will leave the state in more debt down the road. Mortgaging the future to deal with today’s crisis is horribly shortsighted. The three percent withholding on independent contractors amounts to an interest-free loan for the government that falls on the backs of small business at its most grassroots level. The state needs proposals that get to the heart of the problem, not those that exacerbate it.

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Avatar for user 'Leucadian'

Leucadian | July 10, 2009 at 1:18 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

I also feel that businesses, not residences, should be taxed by the State Assessor for property tax purposes on a percentage of the current value.

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Avatar for user 'PaulCurrier'

PaulCurrier | July 10, 2009 at 11:30 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

The Legislature keeps passing budgets and the Governor keeps vetoing them. Arnold is ruining California. Arnold has managed to secure the downgrade of our State Bonds to BBB already, and soon we will be a Junk Bond State. This is miss-management.

I wrote and filed two Initiatives with the California Attorney General's Office in Sacramento. I filed on June 24th. Everyone can read them here:

Article 36 My Proposed Article 36 Grants us as voters the right to call our Constitutional Convention.

Article 37 My Proposed Article 37 Calls our Constitutional Convention, based on Article 36.

No one else has filed anything. We are organizing now on line. My Initiatives provide a level playing field. All can run to be elected as a Delegate from their Assembly District of residence. I provide for public finance, so all are welcome, and I provide for market rate compensation so none will loose by offering their talent to our Commonwealth. I designed a process. Who we elect is up to us. I provide subpoena power to the Convention to enable witness from the best and the brightest. I provide that our Chief Justice of our California Supreme Court be the (non-voting) Presiding Officer. If you read Article 37 and discard the references to Article 36, its an easy read in plain english. The legal citations are required to empower Article 37.

In our organizing efforts - we are attracting all political stripes. The process is fair and open. What we all agree to do is not argue issues until we get to the election of Delegates after November 2010. Why? We need to get on the ballot and pass the initiatives. One thing we can all agree on - is it is time to do this now. I am not granting Radio Interviews until after August 1st. We have so much to do. We are working transparently now, but we need to put the money in play, hire staff, and open our offices, and then I am open to publicity on air.

Critically, I hear the Repair California Group is deadlocked on Prop 13. They we supposed to file by September 24, but it is not clear if they will make the cut off time.

I hear that the Bay Area Council wants to work with the Legislature and Governor. It seems their concept of Appointed or Selected Delegates is not going over with the voters. That is just my guess.

Everyone we talk too wants to elect delegates, as we provide.

Everyone we talk too wants to fix the whole mess, and both the Bay Area Council and the Repair California Groups want a limited scope Convention. We open up everything. It is our Constitution and if we are going to fix it, we need to open it all up for overhaul.

What will we ratify? Probably a New Constitution that is custom built by Californians for California for our 21st Century and beyond.

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Avatar for user 'pechka'

pechka | July 14, 2009 at 2:28 a.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago


"the business side of Prop. 13", mmmm.; sounds like a fight for here and now, friend. Though I dread what new proposition that the people of CA will be fooled by next. Individual/private/non-business/primary residential property taxes are actually a little higher now because of Prop. 13, while businesses are the happy recipients of much lower property taxes thanks to Prop. 13.

CA's problem is really the same problem of our whole country; believing in Santa Claus; i.e., that we can have programs galore while never paying for them, and that we can trust in big BIG business to look after the ordinary citizens' interests.

Our path now is that of cutting services to the most vulnerable people, while ensuring that the wealthy and big businesses get a free ride-----heaven forfend that they should have to pay their fair share in taxes. It might be good to consider what this state and country will be like with a massive increase in homeless families on the streets, and millions of people dying for lack of basic healthcare.

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Avatar for user 'JulieNadine'

JulieNadine | July 14, 2009 at 1:41 p.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

My understanding is that the vast majority of the budget is out of the legislature's hands. Either voter initiatives or federal grants have mandated spending most of the money in specific ways. The main problem with voter initiatives are that things are decided piecemeal -- are you for this or against it? -- without being able to weigh things in terms of the budget and other priorities. Until we have some kind of change to the initiative process, I am afraid no other changes will be enough.

So reforming the voter initiative process would be the top item on my list.

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Avatar for user 'jessethomas'

jessethomas | July 20, 2009 at 10:20 a.m. ― 7 years, 8 months ago

I believe the only real way to solve the budget problem is to eliminate as much government as possible. Like it or not, the private sector are the only producers in a market economy, not the government.

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