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How To Rescue the Golden State from the Junk Heap

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.
Max Whittaker
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.

Analysis: California Issues IOUs

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?