Saturday, May 16, 2009

California: The Broken State

The Economist has the best analysis I've read on California's governing crisis, "California: The Ungovernable State":

ON MAY 19th Californians will go to the polls to vote on six ballot measures that are as important as they are confusing. If these measures fail, America’s biggest state will enter a full-blown financial crisis that will require excruciating cuts in public services. If the measures succeed, the crisis will be only a little less acute. Recent polls suggest that voters are planning to vote most of them down.

The occasion has thus become an ugly summary of all that is wrong with California’s governance, and that list is long. This special election, the sixth in 36 years, came about because the state’s elected politicians once again—for the system virtually assures as much—could not agree on a budget in time and had to cobble together a compromise in February to fill a $42 billion gap between revenue and spending. But that compromise required extending some temporary taxes, shifting spending around and borrowing against future lottery profits. These are among the steps that voters must now approve, thanks to California’s brand of direct democracy, which is unique in extent, complexity and misuse.

A good outcome is no longer possible. California now has the worst bond rating among the 50 states. Income-tax receipts are coming in far below expectations. On May 11th Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor, sent a letter to the legislature warning it that, by his latest estimates, the state will face a budget gap of $15.4 billion if the ballot measures pass, $21.3 billion if they fail. Prisoners will have to be released, firefighters fired, and other services cut or eliminated. One way or the other, on May 20th Californians will have to begin discussing how to fix their broken state.
Spend a few minutes reading the entire article. With the exception of the discussion of Democratic and Republican officeholders as "extremists," this is a much better overview than you'll find in day-to-day reporting at the Los Angeles Times or elsewhere. This chart was also handy:

I had lunch with the president of my college, Eloy Oakley, on Thursday. The meeting was an informal brown-bag luncheon with interested faculty. Perhaps forty professors were there. Eloy spoke for about 20 minutes. Things don't look good for community colleges. Eloy just wants to make it through 2011 without too much pain, i.e., layoffs. After that, economic projections suggest an economic turnaround and perhaps growth in the state's revenue picture.

I'm not torn about this at all. I'll vote against all the ballot measures except 1F, which will freeze legislative salaries. We have a budget "crisis" in California every year. I'm tired of "ballot-box budgeting" because it's so irresponsible, and for all the benefits of direct legislation and citizens' activism, the initative process in California helps to destroy republican government. Actually, the initiatives exacerbate the constitutional dysfunction, especially the 2/3 requirement for both tax increases and budget approval.
The Economist suggests that Calfornia needs a consitutional convention to deal with these structual issues. I'm all for it. The essay makes clear the potential for interest groups and hyper-partisans to hijack a convention. The idea is thus to require only budget issues to be addressed (keeping hot-button social issues away from the body).

Whatever happens, the article made me a little upset to think that the state that literally blazed the trail to progressive government in the United States, roughly 100 years ago, now has the most ungovernable political system in the union.

More later ...

Image Credits: The Economist.


Jordan said...

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you why it took only a year for me to get tired of California after leaving it 15 years prior. And I also give you why my new home of Utah is California's exodus for the liberal rich and the conservative poor.

Dave said...

I hate to say it, but I believe this entire nation will soon be in the fix that California currently finds itself in.

What is worse still, I really don't see much of an economic turn around coming anytime soon-at least not with the hideous spending and anti-free market policies that have been put in place since January, with surely more to come.

No economy that has ever existed could withstand that, and especially not one as fundamentally weak as ours is now.