Gridlock Grips California Government

BY Spencer Michels  November 1, 2011 at 5:23 PM EDT


Photo by Flicker user Wendy McCormac.

You would think the state is actually broken. And maybe it is. But Silicon Valley seems to be doing well, housing prices in San Francisco remain high, fancy restaurants are packed and tickets to “Richard III” with Kevin Spacey are going for up to $360 each — and are almost sold out.

Yet, Californians are discontented, to the point of disgust. Mostly, they are angry at their government, especially the legislature, which is so polarized it couldn’t agree on a budget until Gov. Jerry Brown slashed and burned state services. It takes a two-thirds vote in the legislature to raise taxes, and the Republicans (like their counterparts in Washington) would not vote for any such increase. So the governor cut money for schools, universities, health care, social services, parks and practically everything else the state is involved in. This is not good news for those who depend on state aid.

The gridlock that engulfs Sacramento has lowered the esteem of politicians, and caused thousands of Californians to seek solutions on their own to fix their government:

  • There’s a class at the University of Southern California called “The Future of California” that asks the question: “Can California fix itself?” There are a lot of people who don’t think it can.

  • There are several books out on the crisis, including “California Crack Up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How we can Fix it.” Hmmm

  • MacNeil/Lehrer Productions produced a 400-person conference, “By the People: What’s Next California?” near Los Angeles this summer aimed at analyzing what’s wrong — and how to fix it. These people were serious: they gave up a long weekend to debate government structure. And other conferences are debating the problems as well.

  • A well-known political reporter from Sacramento tells me he gets calls every few days from groups wanting him to speak to them … about you know what.

  • A business group, the Bay Area Council, proposed a constitutional convention to revise California’s constitution, addressing problems that have plagued the state. The convention never happened, since the group ran out of money. But their ideas live on and could be revised.

  • And a blue-ribbon panel, organized by a French-born billionaire, is studying the same subjects and intends to put some proposals on the ballot, via the initiative process. The billionaire businessman, Nicholas Berggruen, who lives in hotels around the world, says California’s problems closely parallel ones on the national level, and California could lead the way in solving them:

“California is such and important state within the U.S., and such an important state frankly with regards to how democracy functions, California almost reflects a little bit of what’s happening in Washington … It’s so partisan that at the end you almost wonder where do the citizens, how are the citizens served?”

So, what are these problem areas? Most of the experts agree on several:

  • The two-thirds rule to pass tax increases has frustrated Democrats.

  • Proposition 13, the 1978 tax reduction measure, has made it doubly hard to raise needed revenues and to collect enough property tax to support local government.

  • Term limits for state assemblymen and senators have taken away much of the institutional memory and expertise in the legislature, and have promoted more ideological, partisan candidates and office holders.

  • Initiative measures, put on the ballot by special interests and individuals, have usurped the roll of the legislature, and in some cases forced the state to spend money without raising any.

Other subjects have come up for debate as well: Should the legislature be full-time or part-time? Do lawmakers represent too many people to adequately reflect their districts’ concerns? How can you hold your legislator’s feet to the fire and be sure he is doing a good job for you?

These are deep, philosophical, organizational questions that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would have had a hard time answering. But just the fact that so many Californians are involved in asking those questions — even if they can’t answer them — may be a good thing. People (if not the legislators) are taking government seriously, at a time when they need to.

Watch Spencer Michels’ report on partisan gridlock in California on Tuesday’s NewsHour.