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Californians Want Change After Budget Impasse

Above: California State Capitol

Audio

Aired 7/21/09

It looks like California legislative leaders and the Governor have agreed on a new budget. But, as a wise man once said, "it ain't over 'til it's over." We're joined on Morning Edition by non-partisan Sacramento Political Consultant Leo McElroy.

— In California, the governor and legislative leaders finally have a tentative budget deal. If lawmakers approve it, the plan will use massive spending cuts to erase the state's $26 billion deficit.

But many Californians have grown weary of these regular budget stalemates. And they're saying that now is the time to fundamentally change the way the state does business.

Students' Struggles

One of those calling for change is Marcella De Veaux. She's doing what many college professors do this time of year: She has her laptop open on the dining room table, working on the syllabus for her fall classes in journalism and public relations at California State University at Northridge.

She finds an e-mail from a student, one of many like this. It begins: Professor, I'm freaking out. I tried to register yesterday and all the classes I planned to take are full.

With less money going to higher education, there are stricter limits on classes now. And without De Veaux's class, the student says she won't graduate.

The e-mail continues: What do I do? My dad is paying for my tuition and is going to be so angry if I don't graduate in a year and a half. I've cost him enough money already. Like I said, I'm freaking out!

While her student is panicked, De Veaux is fed up with the way California allocates its money.

"Most (budget) decisions are made on these propositions," De Veaux says. "They're written in a way that's very difficult to understand. And I think a lot of residents of California, including myself, have voted 'yes.' But in retrospect, I don't know that we could actually figure out how we were going to pay for all of this."

So what does she think needs to be done?

"Wipe the slate clean, move everybody out who's had a chance. And let's start all over again," she says.

A Call For Change

Increasingly, Californians are thinking about making fundamental, wholesale changes in state government. Last week, about 200 gathered in an auditorium in Santa Monica to talk about fixing California.

Jim Wunderman was part of that group. He's with an organization called Repair California, which is campaigning for a constitutional convention to totally redesign state government.

"People scoffed at the idea, but five budget delays later — a $26 billion budget deficit later that nobody has a rational answer for — people aren't laughing anymore," Wunderman says.

Writer John Gabree stayed through the entire three-hour meeting.

"I just got an 'IOU' for a state tax refund, so that hit home in a way it hasn't previously," says Gabree.

Something drastic needs to be done, he says. The question is, what? "And will it happen? I mean, I can see us not dealing with this and just having it get worse and worse," Gabree says.

A Constitutional Convention?

Gabree is not sure that a constitutional convention is the way to go. First, the voters would have to authorize it by passing a couple of ballot measures next year. Then, the convention would meet the year after that. Then, the voters could adopt the changes — or not — the year after that.

Bob Hertzberg, head of another government reform group called California Forward, thinks the state doesn't have the luxury of time.

"We're running directly smack into the wall," says Hertzberg, a former speaker of the California Assembly.

He says, why wait for constitutional reform? A faster solution, Hertzberg says, is putting a package of reform measures on the ballot next year. It could address issues such as California's superstrict term limits and the requirement that budgets be passed by a two-thirds majority. It also might propose putting new limits on the initiative process.

"So I just think time is of the essence with respect to California. And this gets us to the table quicker," Hertzberg says.

In the past, California voters generally have rejected government reform measures. But after many failed attempts, an initiative did pass last fall that stripped lawmakers of the power to draw their own districts.

That might be a fluke. But some fed-up Californians are hoping it's a trend.

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