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SPECIAL REPORT : The State of California : California's PAST : A Politically Divided Ship Reaches Few Ports : Government: Whenever taxed, Californians pursue revenge. Whenever angry, voters try to reform the system. And all the campaign money in the state can't buy a Sacramento that works.

December 30, 1990|Bruce Cain | Bruce Cain is professor of political science at UC Berkeley and associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies

BERKELEY, CALIF. — California politicians may once again become victims of the law of unintended consequences: When you tinker with a system, you may fix what seemed wrong at the time, but you will

create some new problem you never anticipated.

Today, California finds itself severely hampered by formidable political constraints and by demoralizing institutional crises at a time when the public needs of its rapidly growing and diverse population are steadily mounting.

With a new governor and a possibly chastened Legislature, it is possible that the state can ease some of its financial and social crises.

Voter rejection of almost all the bond measures and tax initiatives on the November, 1990, ballot has at least temporarily foreclosed the most politically expedient way of getting out from under the fiscal bind of Propositions 13 and 4. Those measures first limited property-tax collections and then restricted state spending.

Last fall, the liquor industry successfully protected itself from an increase in the alcohol tax designed to make up some of the loss in revenue.

To the disgust of many voters, the campaigns for statewide offices and ballot propositions were expensive, superficial and dominated by mindless 30-second TV spots. The image of the Legislature was greatly hurt by last summer's protracted budget negotiations and the criminal convictions of two incumbent politicians, prompting voters to enact the more Draconian of two competing term-limit measures.

The prospects for 1991 are no better. Gov. Pete Wilson will assume a projected budget deficit of possibly $6 billion and will face a Legislature dominated by grumpy Democratic incumbents who do not appreciate his support for term limitations.

But will any of the prospective cures--such as campaign-finance reform--create new problems? To find out, we need to ask whether the present situation is like any other moment in California history. Probably not. Aspects of the crisis, however, have a familiar historical ring.

At the top of the issue list is coping with the demands of high population growth. California's population grew 26.1% during the last decade, twice the national rate, to 29.8 million. This growth has strained the highway system, increased pollution and placed extraordinary demands upon the public schools.

But growth has been a recurring issue in California history. In the early 20th Century, Progressive Republican governors--Hiram W. Johnson, William D. Stephens and Clement C. Young--had to find creative ways to get reluctant taxpayers to pay for the highways, water projects, schools and social services necessitated by the state's rapid development. Foreshadowing the build-now-pay-later tactics of recent propositions, California's first hard-surface highway system was financed in 1919 by means of a $40-million bond measure.

Tax revolts are nothing new to California. In 1921, Gov. Stephens secured a 50% expansion in the state's budget with a 35% hike in the state's corporation taxes. He tried to protect himself from anticipated political backlash by linking tax increases to business-like improvements in the efficiency of the state's budgeting and accounting system.

But, as Florida's Republican Gov. Bob Martinez more recently discovered in November, hell knows no fury like a taxpayer betrayed. The conservative wing of Stephens' party, angered by his tax policies, successfully ran a conservative candidate, Friend Wm. Richardson, against him in the 1922 primary.

In an effort to end the "orgy of extravagance," the new governor vetoed more than half of the bills that had been passed by the 1925 Legislature, which, incidentally, was controlled by his own party. Even the "Iron Duke" cannot match this record of tax opposition.

Special interests and lobbyists were at least as powerful then as they are today. In the first half of the 20th Century, the most influential lobbyists--Artie Samish, for one--played a role in elections similar to that of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Senate President Dave Roberti today--that is, they could "select and elect."

When Gov. Frank F. Merriam tried to increase taxes to raise needed revenue for the state during the depth of the Depression, Samish, the chief lobbyist for the threatened liquor and mining industries, reportedly told Merriam, "I helped you get into that governor's chair. And I'll get your ass out of it, too."

With Samish's encouragement, Lt. Gov. George J. Hatfield ran against Merriam in a divisive and rancorous 1938 Republican primary, leading to the election of the first Democratic governor in the 20th Century in California.

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