New calls for reform in gridlocked California

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

Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/Reuters
Gridlock: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived to deliver his State of the State address in Sacramento last week.

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?

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.

There is significant bipartisan interest in the legislature as well as from Schwarzenegger in California Forward's blueprint for change. Legislation appears imminent, although the document as yet has no specific legislative sponsor.

The plan calls for multiyear budgeting that discourages the pushing of fiscal liabilities into the future, encourages better planning for shifting costs, makes allowances for midcourse corrections, and obliges government to more realistically project revenues and expenses over longer periods.

The document points out that new programs are often launched to address certain issues, but they include few options to help oversee results and redirect funds if such strategies don't pan out.

The new plan calls for budget discussions to be held in a single public forum with the administration, the legislative analyst's office, and other interested parties present.

It also spells out ways for policymakers to better consult with the public on the choices they make. And calls for a joint committee to ensure bipartisan and bicameral consensus through performance and program reviews.

"Over the decades, there have been several blue-ribbon commissions which have looked at serious reform," says the group's Mr. Mayer. "The whole point of this body is [not just] to make the recommendations but to see them through and not walk away."

The California Forward process helped identify another recurring problem: Policymakers find it easier to create new programs than improve existing ones. So it calls for ways to create more stable funding for major programs, which would allow legislators to concentrate on improving results and making crucial decisions affecting those results earlier.

One complaint heard over and over at the group's public consultations was that residents did not trust the government.

"The people don't want to give the politicians more money because they don't trust them to spend it well. So they oppose and vote down tax increases," says political analyst Tony Quinn.

Despite the worsening US economy, or perhaps because of it, that may be changing as well. "I think the majority of Californians are ready to accept some tax increases," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

Solutions for California's government gridlock have been touted before. But this time may be different, suggests Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

"We've been slipping downhill for years, and now we're at the edge of a cliff," Mr. Pitney says. "IOUs and shortened school years are just two ways in which the budget crisis will directly affect Californians in their everyday lives."

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