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Reform: The Election’s Upside

— California has elected a new governor, which is to say it’s elected an old governor. Jerry Brown’s victory illustrates the dearth of new leaders in a state whose political system grinds people down. You’d have to be crazy to want to govern this place! That is, unless you’re a former chief executive with an outsized ego and nothing better to do.

That pretty well describes both major party candidates who ran for governor this year.

But one area where voters have made a positive difference is in reform. I’m talking about the passage of Proposition 20 and Proposition 25.

Prop. 20 hands the redistricting of Congressional districts over to a citizen’s commission. That’ll take the power of drawing district lines away from the State Legislature. Two years ago, California voters did that for state elective offices. This year, in fact, voters rejected an attempt to undo that redistricting reform by voting down Proposition 27.

The major parties hate redistricting reform because it denies them the ability to draw safe districts that protect the party faithful. The old system created districts that are hard-core Republican or Democrat… districts that foster gridlock and fail to represent the political middle.

Sacramento political operative Leo McElroy told me redistricting reform may be the one thing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger can cite as his legacy of accomplishment. God knows he never improved the budget process.

The most important reform passed in California in November, 2010 is Proposition 25, which allows the Legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote. Majority rule on the budget means it will be a lot easier to pass. You still need a super-majority to pass a tax hike, thanks to Prop. 13. But the days of holding up the budget process with endless gridlock in the Legislature appear to be over.

So Proposition 25 is great for Democrats and it sucks for Republicans, right? That’s only true if the GOP is satisfied to be the permanent minority in California. If that’s the case, it’s their choice. But I’m hoping the reality of Prop. 25 will force Republicans to become more mainstream and fight for that political middle.

Meanwhile, majority rule will force Democrats to be accountable… to pass a budget and accept the credit or the blame for it.

Once we get beyond Props 20 and 25, the reformist zeal of voters becomes less clear. Californians also passed Proposition 26, which redefines some fees as taxes and requires a two-thirds vote to pass them. Naturally, the oil companies consider this reform because they don’t like paying fees for environmental cleanup. They say those are taxes and they should be called taxes. But Proposition 26 doesn’t make governing in Sacramento any easier.

And then there’s San Diego’s Proposition D. It was a brave attempt to raise money to sustain city services through a sales tax increase, while also reforming municipal finances. But the current economic malaise and the general distrust of local government stopped it. We’ll see if voters begin to trust San Diego politicians more when and if the city drastically cuts cops, firefighters and library hours, as they’ve promised to do.

We all wish for wise, competent leaders to run our cities and our states. But our political system doesn’t always provide them. More often than not our politicians are middling. But democracy is a system that is supposed to work even when our politicians are mediocre and lack sterling characters. Reforming the system is what California needs. It matters a lot more than who is in the Governor’s office.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | November 4, 2010 at 2:34 p.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

Califonia state government is weaker than the state governments of just about all other of the states of the Union.forty-nine states. "The power of Sacramento" is eclipsed greatly by two other locus (loci?) of power.

The Peoples' Republic of California grants its citizens unusual power to make legislation and affect political change.

Overthrown governor Grey Davis was recalled in 2003, barely six months after he scored a decisive re-election victory in Nov. 2002.

The recall was a fait accompli before it even took place. The "recall" was actually a do-over of the previous November election, with Davis facing Arnie and scores of other would-be governors (including the late Gary Coleman).

The other landmark expression of the power of the people in making legislation and altering political power was the passage of Proposition 13.

Arguably, that one act -- "The Peoples Proposition 13", has done far more to alter the quality and nature of life and the economy in California than any legislation enacted by the state legislature in Sacramento during that same period (since 1978).

I mention two loci of power. The second locus is the State and Federal Court systems. Litigation has always been a lucrative industry in California.

Next to the direct democracy phenomena of referendum and recall, the courts through their decisions, or lack therof, do much to shape the political, social, cultural and religious life of Californians.

The political dynamic in California, as expressed in the power of the people to legislate by referendum is a reflection of the hyper-individualism that is the most noteworthy characteristic of HOMO CALIFORNICUS and its way of viewing existence.

PS. Any bets on when the movement will be launched to "RECALL JERRY BROWN"?

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | November 5, 2010 at 1:58 p.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago

I know that direct democracy isn't confined to California, but the volume of laws and constitutional amendments that come directly from voters in this state has never ceased to amaze me. (I moved here from the Midwest 12 years ago). Democracy relies on check and balances. But the check of the "People's Democracy" is something our founders never bargained for. I can't imagine a California reform that would roll back our initiative system. But there's no question in my mind that a return to representative democracy in this state would make things work a hell of a lot better! It might make our government more corrupt. It would certainly make it less democratic. But the equilibrium that makes democracy a functional and efficient alternative to tyranny would return.

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Avatar for user 'Greg Duch'

Greg Duch | November 5, 2010 at 6:26 p.m. ― 6 years, 4 months ago


Launching the petition drives which get recalls and propositions on the ballot) takes plenty of money.
The Honorable Darell Issa who tried to run against Grey davis in 2002, got sweet revenge only because he had the $$$$ to get the recall on the ballot in 2003. Likewise, Howard Jarvis, the man who conceived and delivered Proposition 13, was no pauper.

Direct democracy just APPEARS to be a more populist approach to government than representative democracy.

Not true.
Money = POLITICAL POWER. We, in California simply have more diverse choices as to where to spend that money to buy that power, for purposes of "legislating".

Money can be converted into power by spending in the following ways. 1. The "old-fashioned way"--- donations to the politicians of choice who represent us and make the laws in legislatures,--- or, 2. through the POPULIST tack of bankrolling ballot-iniatives in order to make laws which appear to be enacted by THE PEOPLE, -- or 3. ORDERS IN THE COURTS --laws "enacted" through lawsuits involving legal challenges by wealthy individuals or special interest groups undertaken in the courts.

Money talks as loudly in Califiornia politics as anywhere else. In fact, money has a greater number of means of self-expression here in California.


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