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New calls for reform in gridlocked California

Amid the state's budget woes, a bipartisan initiative looks for structural solutions.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2009

Gridlock: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived to deliver his State of the State address in Sacramento last week.

Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/Reuters


Los Angeles

Fed up with the broken record of a gridlocked government, could California residents finally be ready to make the fundamental government reforms they have resisted for decades?

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In what has been described as its "worst financial crisis," the state will be out of money within weeks and may have to issue IOUs to state workers (a tactic that proved to be a fiasco in 1993). The possibility of shrinking the school year, depriving college students of their state scholarships, and issuing IOUs instead of tax refunds are all also on the table.

In his state of the state speech last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "The $42 billion deficit is a rock upon our chest, and we cannot breathe until we get it off."

On what is normally an occasion to recount accomplishments from the preceding year, Governor Schwarzenegger continued: "It doesn't make any sense for me to … talk about education or infrastructure or water or healthcare reform and all those things when we have this huge budget deficit."

"The public is annoyed and willing to consider things that they haven't before," says Barbara O'Connor, professor of communications and government at California State University in Sacramento. "There is a drumbeat of reform."

Ms. O'Connor is one of hundreds of state thinkers, analysts, and legislators backing a new group called "California Forward," which is holding focus groups across the state to find bipartisan, citizen-driven solutions to end the structural problems that have long plagued California.

Those problems include the requirement of a two-thirds majority of legislators to pass a state budget – a nearly insurmountable problem since the state made this a requirement in 1978.

California Forward is cochaired by Leon Panetta, but includes leaders from business and labor, left and right, and representatives from all over the state. They have crafted a document that they claim will provide better representation, smarter budgeting, and better services.

"California was in a crisis even before the national economic crisis," says James P. Mayer, executive director of California Forward. "Businesses here don't see how California can get out of this mess unless we put in place some significant reforms."

One sign that the public may be ready to tackle reform: After rejecting similar measures in recent years, California voters last year approved Prop. 11, which takes the process of drawing legislative district boundaries out of the hands of politicians in favor of an independent body of retired judges. Experts say the old method kept politicians safe from voter wrath and led to gridlock year after year.