The California Nightmare

by dday

Many of you know that I do double-duty over at Calitics, the California progressive political website. We had quite a couple of weeks here leading up to another election (our 13th in 7 years), which the voters defeated resoundingly. The Yes side outspent the No side 7:1 and still got crushed. Let me back up a bit and describe the problem.

There is no functional government in California. We might as well be Somalia. Because of the 2/3 requirement needed to pass a budget or raise taxes, because of the cap on property taxes at 1978 rates which make income tax revenue 53% of the overall general fund, because of the various past ballot measures and Constitutional amendments which mandate a healthy part of the budget into certain spending operations, because local governments are funded in the most absurd way possible, because of the utter lack of a political media to explain this jumble to people, we don't have a government that works. Democrats hold a 63% majority in both houses of the legislature, and yet they cannot invoke the popular will because of hard-right Republican holdouts (we don't grow any other kind out here).

Now, this would be true if John Birch or Noam Chomsky were Governor, because it's a failure of process and not policy. But let's offer a particular bit of scorn for the current Governor, who, despite what you hear in the national media, has been the biggest failure of any California executive in decades. He entered government because he labeled his predecessor Gray Davis a failure and said he had to be recalled. Six years later we have a bigger budget deficit and largely the same dysfunctional structure. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would "blow up the boxes" in Sacramento, and the boxes remain untouched. He said he would be the "Collectinator" in DC, and yet California gives much more in income taxes to the Feds than they receive in services. Schwarzenegger has virtually no substantive accomplishments; he showed up in DC yesterday for that fuel economy announcement, which is based on California's tailpipe emissions law, passed in 2002, when he was still making movies.

The man has absolutely no ability to persuade members of his own party, who actually give him lower approval ratings than Democrats. And his latest reinvention will be as a hard-right spending cutter. He's in Washington today trying to get waivers to cut Medi-Cal and in-home supportive services and still qualify for stimulus money. In other words, he's reacting to a terrible recession in the state by cutting more government spending and throwing 5,000 state employees out of work. This is more neo-Hooverist than any Mark Sanford or Rick Perry plan.

And yet the local media and the Village treat this guy like the movie star he is, with glossy magazine covers and puff-piece profiles. Imagine George Bush circa 2007 STILL being treated like the guy on the aircraft carrier in his codpiece suit and you get what I mean.

The Democratic leadership doesn't exactly help matters by capitulating at the first opportunity, and refusing for 30 years to detail the root of the problem - a structural revenue deficit and an ungovernable system. They backed this special election nonsense, and like national Democrats, they view polls as immutable realities cast in stone, rather than a starting point for advocacy and persuasion.

It's beyond clear what has to be done now. We need to repeal the 2/3 requirement and restore democracy in the state of California. As George Lakoff says, this is the lesson of the election, the voters demanding a functional government that doesn't have to return to them every couple months to sort out their budget problems. It's time for a majority vote.

And the new Democratic Party leader, John Burton (who was in Congress I think back in 1874), says he agrees. But I've always had the sneaking suspicion that the Democrats like it this way - they may not be able to fix the budget from year to year, but at least they have something else to blame instead of themselves. The 2/3 rule works for BOTH parties - Republicans can hijack the process, Democrats can point at Republicans.

Enough. A growing movement at the grassroots wants to live in a democracy again, not a failed state. Expect initiatives on the 2010 ballot as wide-ranging as a simple repeal of the 2/3 rule, to a Constitutional convention (no state needs one more) to completely rewrite this absurd collection of contradictions. And you can see this as a test case for whether a progressive movement can really deliver the change they seek. If not, I don't see how the country recovers with this massive sick patient on its West Coast.

(Oh, and we'll know in a couple hours if the state Supreme Court decision on Prop. 8, the gay marriage law, is coming down tomorrow. Never a dull moment...)

...So no Prop. 8 announcement this week. Also, here is a very good video from a California Assemblywoman that explains the myths and falsehoods of the state budget process pretty darn well.