California, once a dream state, strives to get back its groove
As it has slid, the state's citizens have begun to focus on its core dysfunctions.
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Another group, California Forward, has been holding focus groups across the state for nearly a year to find bipartisan, citizen-driven solutions to end the structural problems that plague the state.Skip to next paragraph
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"The reality is we can't exist this way anymore. We can't just keep plugging a hole until the next year," says Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward, which includes leaders from business and labor, on the left and right, from around the state. The group was co-chaired by Leon Panetta, before President Obama tapped him to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
"There is a huge gap between the innovation that is out there and the government. The ideas never get translated into policy in California," Mr. Mayer adds. "California has to step back and reinvent its government to meet the challenges of this state and the ambitions of its people."
The challenges are daunting.
Contributing to lawmakers' fight to close a $42 billion budget deficit – the largest budget gap by any state in American history – is a litany of other problems: crumbling infrastructure, water shortages, prison overcrowding, gang crime, traffic congestion and smog, illegal immigration, and sliding school performance.
Some California watchers say the state's political rules also handicap the government that serves the nation's biggest population, at 34 million, and its most diverse.
Those include the often-used citizen referendum process, which allows ballot initiatives to spring from the grass roots but which, some say, has also had the effect of limiting officials' budgetary options. Term limits for elected officials may also contribute, making it difficult for new and relatively inexperienced officeholders to understand the needs of a mammoth government that oversees 58 counties, 480 cities, 1,050 K-12 school districts, and 72 community college districts.
"California has a governance structure that is too rigid, not just in regard to fiscal spending but in political matters as well," says Mark Baldassare, executive director of the Public Policy Institute of California. On a ballot measure, he says, "a 50 percent vote can get ... embedded in the constitution both tax and spending requirements that are difficult to maintain and don't have much flexibility."
The state's tax system, which relies heavily on personal income and capital gains has proved to be unstable again and again, he adds. Political districts drawn by the party in power, moreover, create too many "safe" seats that allow candidates and legislators to forgo learning the art of compromise. Instead, they dig in, and gridlock ensues.
In several lists and indexes comparing states' performance, the Golden State seems to have some leaden weights around its ankles.