A Conversation About The Crisis
"It's very simple what people want," said Mark Baldassare. "People want progress."
That was the context for... and the motivation behind... a provocative two hour discussion on Friday morning at our KQED studios in San Francisco, a discussion among eight thoughtful veterans of the good and bad of government and public policy in California.
They were there to help us begin an ambitious project that we hope will help explain the crisis of governance in California... and examine the options for change. KQED, thanks to a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, will spend a large amount of time in the new year searching to engage Californians in a discussion about why things seem so screwed up, and how they might be changed for the better.
Friday's participants in the discussion reads like a Who's Who of governance and politics: former Assembly speaker and current reformer Bob Hertzberg; former GOP legislative leader Jim Brulte; longtime tax-cutter and current blogger Joel Fox; former GOP strategist and now political academic Dan Schnur; Bay Area Council reform point man Matt Regan; physician and community foundation leader Dr. Sandra Hernandez; researcher Jewelle Gibbs; and, as previously mentioned, one of California's preeminent pollsters, Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.
The all-star group was asked to talk about both the problems -- in both broad and specific ways -- and some possible solutions.
Not surprisingly, all agreed with the pervasive sense that things in the Golden State have gone awry. "In every metric that states are ranked by," said Regan of the Bay Area Council, "California ranks last."
Added Joel Fox: "We've gone down a slippery slope for a very long time."
Jim Brulte, who shrewdly led Republicans in both legislative houses at different times in his career, offered an interesting historical perspective dating back to the national rise of conservatism. Before 1964, he said, the two major political parties were usually separated by class issues more than ideology. But once ideology became the big dividing line, Brulte argues the people in the middle began to slowly drift away. Fast forward to today, where almost 20% of California voters are independents. Once you removed the moderates, he said, the fights between left and right only grew worse.
Dan Schnur, who cut his teeth as a GOP strategist and is now director of USC's Institute of Politics, put the above conundrum in football terms. "We need something between the two end zones," he said. "When people are 100 yards away from each other, they can't really speak in nuance."
Of course, some in the room were once great defenders of their partisan positions. Bob Hertzberg, now leading the reform effort California Forward but leader of the Assembly from 2000-2002, admitted that his partisan maneuvers during the 2001 redistricting process were probably not in the best interests of the state. In fact, he said, the decisions made in drawing political districts "turned my stomach."
Other revelations? From anti-tax business advocate Joel Fox, affirmation that Governor Schwarzenegger's 2005 special election was a missed opportunity. Fox, who was a co-chair of the failed effort to enact four ballot measures, said that the the one that really mattered was Proposition 76 -- the proposal to change the state budget process. "Even as co-chairman," said Fox, "I said, 'Why are we doing four measures?'"
It's probably not surprising that the ex-pols in the room would decry the current term limits law in California. Brulte, while a supporter of term limits in general, nonetheless thinks the existing system has weakened the collective backbone of the Legislature in doing what's right. "You’re not there long enough to establish your bona fides with your core constituency to ever tell your core constituency 'No,'" he said.
But the most intriguing part of the discussion was the almost universal consensus that California needs a much stronger structure of local government and, perhaps correspondingly, a weaker state government.
Dr. Sandra Hernandez, a leader of the nonprofit San Francisco Foundation, said more power needs to be given to locals "where there is more trust" of the public. Hernandez went on to say that too few Californians understand the nexus between the services they want, and what it takes to provide those services in the way of money and resources... a disconnect that can only be solved through local, grassroots education.
"We have a lot of work to do to build that kind of civic knowledge," she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Hertzberg, whose reform group has a proposal to shift some things away from the state capital. "As long as we ensure there's equitable protections," he said, "you [should] devolve authority to folks where's there's a greater nexus." Translation: keep more of the needs and actions of government where they can be seen and measured by average folks.
And the ever quotable Hertzberg offered this assessment of the top-down style of government: "Sacramento has become the Politburo."
Jewelle Gibbs, whose expertise is in examining minority communities, said that California's emerging minority-majority citizenry is coming of age in a state "crippled" by its dysfunctional government. "Unless we somehow reach out to minorities," she said, "I think we are real danger in losing our preeminence as a state."
But the real question left lingering on Friday was both how to begin the government reform process, and whether this is the exact right time... or the exact wrong time.
The pollster in the group, PPIC's Baldassare, suggested that there are signs pointing ominously towards the latter. He said that the disgust and distrust of the voters is so intense that any reform measure on 2010's two ballots is likely to be viewed with skepticism. The group had a spirited discussion about the pros and cons of the idea of a constitutional convention, with many of the seasoned politicos skeptical about both its passage and efficacy. More on that in a future posting.
In the end, our intent was for the discussion to be a place to start... a brainstorming session over what's broken, why, and why a way to fix it has been so elusive. Look for more about our in-depth reporting project, and the choices facing Californians, in the weeks and months to come.