We Need New Ideas. From 2004.

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Like every good state Capitol denizen, I still have the yellow books sitting on a shelf here in the bureau. It's a handsomely bound set dominated by two volumes each the size of a San Francisco phone book, emblazoned with a memorable title: "A Government For The People For A Change."

"It" is the California Performance Review, the somewhat quixotic adventure of 2004 that attempted to make good on Governor Schwarzenegger's promise to "blow up the boxes" of state government.

It's back. Sort of.

The CPR was a three month endeavor, carried out by a few hundred state employees and endorsed by the governor, to find places for saving money in state government. "This report is a top-to-bottom look at how to improve our government," said Schwarzenegger at an August 2004 event staged inside a state surplus warehouse.

But by that fall, the commission appointed by the governor to review the CPR suggested it needed more work. The bipartisan group, as a story in the Orange County Register reported, "said several aspects of the 2,500 page plan commissioned by the governor need to be done over or delayed because they don't address the state's true problems."

That's not to say the CPR produced zero change; a few of its suggestions, like the creation of a state public health officer, were carried out.

But many more were deemed either not ready for prime time or declared DOA by powerful interest groups. Schwarzenegger himself dropped a high-profile push to abolish 88 state boards and commissions.

Now, during what appears to be one of the worst budget crises in state history, the CPR is back -- with the governor's fellow Republicans using every opportunity to urge folks to dust off those yellow books.

The buzz seemed to begin a few weeks ago after one of the infamous Big Five budget meetings, when Assembly GOP Leader Mike Villines told reporters that government reform should be back on the table. He and other Republican legislators have repeated these demands almost daily ever since.

At a meet-and-greet with new GOP legislators last week, Villines said he knows the CPR ideas aren't worth enough in savings to make a sizeable dent in the projected $11.2 budget this year, but that it's not the point.

"Things like [the CPR recommendations] are symbolic," he said. "I know it won't be a huge cut, but when you start doing those things, then Californians can say, 'Okay, we're open to a discussion on other things.'"

Other things, one presumes, would mean tax increases.

Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) took his own shot at yesterday's joint convention, using his alloted question time to lift the big books up for the cameras and suggest someone re-open them.

Democrats, though, seem unimpressed.

“It is not an answer," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last week, "to say, 'Well, government needs to just be more efficient, therefore we're not going to solve the [larger] problem."

But in the battle over messaging, Republicans must think that they've found a winner. Every GOP freshman I interviewed at last week's gathering mentioned the need to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse. And their state party took up the cause this afternoon.

"Lawmakers need to find the waste and fraud," screamed a press release from the California Republican Party. "Democrat calls for even higher taxes to fund more of this waste only adds insult to injury."

Will the yellow books come back into play? Are there a few of the proposals that deserve a second look? Is the governor interested in trying again to blow up the boxes? Tough to say at this point; both sides admit these aren't big dollar items, but disagree on whether that matters.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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