Reform: To Look Forward, Look Back

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Fixing what's broken with government in California is very much in vogue these days. And while consensus may not yet exist on what should be fixed and how, here's something undeniable: it's been tried before, and the results sometimes might have made things worse.

All this year, KQED and The California Report are taking a comprehensive look at the dysfunction that exists in local and state government and electoral politics. Our project, called Governing California: Our State of Disarray, is an attempt to look at all angles and perhaps generate some discussion about how to move forward.

On this morning's program, I reported on some of the reform efforts from days gone by... and what lessons the history offers for would-be reformers today.

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The thing that stands out most notably in an examination of almost 100 years of governance issues is how many piecemeal efforts there have been, and how the rare comprehensive efforts have either failed to make substantive changes... or failed altogether.

It's also clear that many of the singular measures end up with very unexpected results. Take just two proposals to deal with the state budget... easily one of the most talked about parts of today's dysfunction. Here's part of the ballot argument for 1970's Proposition 3:

By requiring the budget to be enacted by June 15 of each year, instead of July 1, the state could stop flirting with the possibility of chaos which could result from the starting of a new fiscal year without a budget.

Well, you know how that one turned out. The last time that deadline was met by the Legislature? 1986. But by far, the most important change to the budget system was approved by voters in 1933 -- a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber to pass any budget where spending grew by more than 5%.

Not familiar with that 5% caveat? That's because in 1962, the Legislature placed Proposition 16 on the ballot that made all budgets subject to a two-thirds vote. The rationale was that California's budget was growing by much more than that every year back then, and the 5% provision was deemed "obsolete."

But here's something worth pondering: had the 1933 constitutional amendment been left as it was, the last three state budgets could have been approved by a simple majority vote.

The 1962 fix to the budget process was part of one of three broad efforts at governance reform in California, efforts that only rarely succeeded with major change. The best example may have been 1966's Proposition 1A, drafted by the era's Constitution Revision Commission and, in addition to a myriad of small changes, created a full-time Legislature.

"It was a rare bipartisan thing," remembers Barry Keene, a staffer on the commission who later served 22 years in the Legislature. But Keene says his work on the 1960s commission left him with the impression that it wasn't the vehicle for important systemic change. "What comes out of a constitution revision commission," he says, "is very modest."

(Keene is also noteworthy as one of the first voices in the modern era in support of a constitutional convention -- an idea that blossomed and quickly died over the last few months.)

In 1994, another revision commission was convened... one whose existence was due, in large part, to an economic crisis that had sent the state reeling -- not that dissimilar from current times. "There was a theory that many of us had, that this was the one point in time that you could do it," says Fred Silva, who served as the commission's executive director.

The commission's recommendations were broad and -- in some cases -- controversial. But the effort was stymied, says Silva, by three things: the unlucky timing of the end of the recession just as the recommendations were complete (thus killing the momentum for change), the fact that the commission was disbanded as soon as the recommendations were made and thus not around to keep up the lobbying for change, and the disdain by powerful interest groups for anything that might upset the status quo.

And for new efforts at reform, Silva (now a consultant to the group California Forward) says the path will not be easy.

"The question will be," he says, "if there's enough interest on the part of communities of interest that they're willing to overwhelm the negative observations of special interests."

You can check out our special online home for our Governing California project here.

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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.
  • Jeff

    I’d be interested to have Mr. Silva’s take on the distinctions between “communities of interests” and “special interests.” It should surprise few that the tendency for what people identify as good for the general welfare to be aligned to what is good for their selves is quite strong.

  • Nick Ortiz

    John – wasn’t last year’s budget technically “on-time” because of the February fix? Thanks for your great reporting and commentary, btw.

  • John Myers

    Yes! The 2009-2010 budget was, technically, enacted almost five months early… (probably a “technical” record!)

    It was part of the Feb. 2009 deal that not only fixed the deficit in the (then) current 2008-2009 fiscal year, but attempted to solve the deficit waiting around the corner, too. Of course, by summertime that proposal was already out of whack…hence the budget “revision” approved in late July. And, as we know, lawmakers have again been trying to fix the 2009-2010 budget this year.

  • Ray LeBov

    Here is what I wrote in response to an interview question in 2004:

    Capitol Connection: What changes would you like to see in

    LeBov: Acknowledging the
    the political impossibility of what I would
    propose, I believe that a comprehensive package that includes
    open primaries, fair redistricting, more realistic term
    limits, elimination of the 2/3 vote requirement for the
    budget and taxes, and elimination of budgeting by initiative would greatly enhance the process.