Brown, Whitman Lukewarm on Reform

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John Myers/KQED

California simply needs a strong leader to solve what's ailing it; that's the implicit message of both of the major candidates for governor. Trouble is, voters have heard the same assessment of the problems before... and yet the problems persist.

This morning on The California Report, we examine what Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman have said on the subject of reforming the state's system of government, and find that it hasn't been much.

That's not entirely surprising. In a tightly contested race, probably the last thing a candidate will do is endorse something so sweeping that it further inflames the various and sundry forces (left or right) that thrive under the status quo of government dysfunction.

But even if such calculations are being made, Brown and Whitman still seem to legitimately believe that much of what ails California will disappear if their particular brand of leadership is chosen on November 2.

"The central argument for both candidacies is personal and, I believe, depends on magic," said Joe Mathews, journalist and author of a new comprehensive book about the state's broken system of governance. "Jerry Brown possesses special magic because of his long experience in government. And Meg Whitman apparently possesses special magic because she comes from Silicon Valley, which is a magical place."

That's not too dissimilar from what the guy who's leaving the job promised in 2003. "Let me tell you something, it isn't that easy," said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a speech last year. "Why, over all of those years and all of those governors, did we have this problem?" he asked. "It's the system."

A few government reform ideas have emerged from Schwarzenegger's would-be successors... and we're asking them to weigh in on additional ideas. But more on that in a moment.

Getty/Kevork Djansezian

For Meg Whitman, the government reform agenda includes making state budgets cover two fiscal years, not one. "We are so short-term focused in this state that we never have a chance to think more than 12 months out," she said on the subject of two-year budgets after a recent campaign stop in the Sacramento suburbs. In the same chat with reporters, the GOP nominee endorsed the concept of 'pay as you go' for ballot measures -- which says that any measure proposing to spend money must also identify where those dollars will come from.

A review of the candidate's website also finds support for reviewing regulations and agencies to see if they're still effective (she'd establish a "sunset commission") and, perhaps most sweeping of all of Whitman's stances, support the devolving of the Legislature into a part-time body.

One reform on which she and challenger Jerry Brown disagree: a majority vote in each house of the Legislature to pass a budget. Whitman is opposed to Proposition 25 on this fall's ballot; Brown supports it.

As for the Democratic nominee, his list of government reform ideas is no less thin-yet-interesting. Brown has also endorsed the concept of 'pay-as-you-go,' and mentioned it in terms of legislation at last week's final gubernatorial debate.

"Anytime you propose a bill, tell us how you're going to fund it," Brown said when asked about reform by moderator Tom Brokaw.

But the most intriguing idea Brown has endorsed -- at least in concept -- is what's known in governance reform circles as realignment -- a topic I reported on recently for our ongoing series on fixing government.

Getty/Justin Sullivan

"I want to move more authority back to local government, because I was there when local authority was moved up to [Sacramento]," said Brown at the spring Democratic convention, "and it doesn't work very well."

I was there. That must surely be Brown referencing the ballot measure heard 'round the world, 1978's Proposition 13. By limiting property taxes, the measure also changed the balance of power in government -- state government started picking up more of the tab for services, and also began calling more of the shots.

But it's not clear just how Brown would go about untangling that local-state knot. In the aforementioned debate, Brown seemed to both dismiss Brokaw's question about modifying Prop 13 while also saying that there are "no sacred cows" when it comes to fixing the state. Spokesperson Sterling Clifford, while saying there's no fully crafted plan on the subject, did say that Brown would push for a major revamp for public schools -- some kind of reform that would remove almost all rules for how schools spend their money, as long as those schools continued to perform to statewide standards.

Still, there are many more ideas out there about reforming California's system of government -- so many that we're asking the candidates to respond. As part of our project Governing California: Making Sense of our State of Disarray, we've asked all of the gubernatorial candidates to answer ten straightforward questions about fixing what seems broken.

We'll post all answers received online, while letting you know who does -- and doesn't -- take the challenge of weighing in before Election Day.

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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.
  • Fred Mangels

    I don’t think it’s going to matter who takes the Governor’s Office. This state isn’t fixable. This is the perfect opportunity to waste your vote on a third party candidate, which is what I’ll be doing. I’m voting for the Libertarian Party’s, Dale Ogden, for Governor.

  • John Myers

    A note to the reader Francis, who posted a long diatribe about Harry Reid, “anchor babies,” etc. — your comments were taken down, as they weren’t in the least bit germane to this posting. Please read KQED’s rules for comments ( if you need clarification. Thanks.