In California, top spot is prestigious but punishing

A special election this fall may mean a new Golden State governor - who will face a history of political dysfunction.

For all would-be leaders of the world's sixth-largest economy, the siren call of the California governorship just got a lot louder.

When the secretary of state certified the petition Wednesday to recall Gov. Gray Davis, he spurred California toward a special election this fall. What remains unclear is why anyone would want the job.

On the surface, there is the lure of the position Ronald Reagan used as a springboard to the presidency, as well as the prestige of heading the most influential state in the Union.

But underneath, a tangle of political reforms and demographic changes have turned California into a state of confusion. The Golden State, governors have quickly learned, is nearly ungovernable.

Not that Governor Davis has been merely a passenger on California's Implosion Express. But the real causes of the current crisis, experts suggest, run much deeper than the recall of one man.

"It's a tough state to govern," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who studies California politics. "California bites [governors] off and chews them up."

It is a political perfect storm that has been building for almost a century - encompassing a governor with relatively weak powers, a state with the population growth rate of a third-world nation, a populace unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the rising cost of services, and a ballot-initiative system with a mind of its own.

Yet to some, Davis's current problems can be distilled down to a single fraction: two-thirds. California is one of only three states that requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to pass a budget. Originally devised as a Depression-era cap on fiscal exuberance, the rule now almost ensures gridlock on every difficult budget decision.

"There is no such thing as a peaceful $38 billion deficit," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "If you needed two-thirds in Congress, you couldn't do anything."

The drawbacks of democracy

In some ways, though, that is the point. California's political heritage has always been marbled by a lingering distrust of government.

If there is a father of California politics, it might not be Reagan or Pat Brown, but Hiram Johnson. The turn-of-the-century governor arose out of the Progressive matrix of Wisconsin Gov. Robert LaFollette and Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party, promising to rid the Capitol of special interests and return the government to the people.

"If we have to indict anyone for this, we have to indict Hiram Johnson," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. "There are a number of cases in which [his] direct democracy has led to the problems we have now."

Among his reforms: the ballot initiative and the recall. California will have its first gubernatorial recall election on Oct. 7, when voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on Davis, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante announced Thursday. He also said the recall election would have two parts: Voters will first decide whether to oust Davis, then choose a candidate to replace him.

The initiative, by contrast has become the state's most powerful populist tool. Few states have used ballot initiative as fervently and frequently as California - or with so great an impact on government.

In 1978, for example, Californians passed Proposition 13, which capped property-tax hikes and inadvertently shifted more of the education burden from localities to the state. A decade later, Proposition 98 demanded that 40 percent of the California general fund be spent on education.

"There is no question that the number of initiatives each year directly impacts the budget... making budgeting a far more complicated issue," says Elizabeth Hill, California's nonpartisan budget analyst.

No cuts, no taxes

There are still options, experts say, such as cuts to programs or higher taxes. Other states have done both to survive lean budget times. But both last year and this year, California was unable to take such steps necessary to balance the budget, a testament to the depth of the state's political dysfunction.

It is a reflection of a broad shift in the population, some say. Although the California population is growing by 1.9 percent a year - a faster rate than that of Bangladesh - residents are unwilling to pay more to reduce the strain on services. Nor are they willing to cut back.

While 94 percent said the state's budget was a big problem, 82 percent said they would not support cuts to K-12 education and 71 percent said no to cuts in health and human services, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. At the same time, respondents said they also rejected income or sales tax increases, though by a much narrower margin.

"California has become a state where the expectation of good things has continued but the willingness to pay for it has dropped," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "What's changed has been the demography."

Term limits have made some legislators fell less secure - and less willing to make bold budget moves, some say.

Redistricting to help incumbents has polarized the Legislature by creating "safe" districts that are ever more left or right wing, say others. As a result, the governor's ability to clean up a state mess has been dwindling.

"The problem always revolves around political will," says Steve Zimmerman, managing director of Standard and Poor's west region. "If you're willing to make tough political decisions, you can do this."

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