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Sad Fate of Thoughtful Attempt at Reform

June 23, 2005|Michael Hiltzik

The anthropologists say that one characteristic of Homo sapiens is that our tools and ideas continually evolve in their sophistication. It must be the exception proving the rule, then, that in California our solutions for problems like the fiscal crisis only grow cruder with time.

This thought occurred to me when I compared the "Live Within Our Means" Act, the narrow-minded fiscal measure Gov. Schwarzenegger is pushing for the November special election, with the thoughtful reforms that emerged to address California's last big budget crunch, in 1994.

Back then, aiming to improve the "dysfunctional" government of the moment, the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson created a blue-ribbon, 23-member constitutional revision commission. The panel issued its recommendations in mid-1996 after 18 months of hard work.

We'll get to the sad fate of those recommendations presently, but it's worth noting that Wilson is an important advisor to the current governor and that the commission chairman, R. William Hauck, is still president of the California Business Roundtable (and a coauthor of "Live Within Our Means"). Despite that, the wisdom and breadth of the 1994 commission's work is nowhere to be found in Sacramento today.

In 1994, the state was in a familiar fix. A severe economic downturn had created a huge budget deficit. The Legislature and governor couldn't work together to solve it.

The revision commission ultimately recommended far-reaching changes in the budget, initiative and electoral processes, as well as in other areas. Among the key players was Hauck, who is still one of our most public-spirited business leaders. People who served on the commission are unstinting in their praise for his efforts to hold the panel together, despite some political interference, and drive it toward useful compromises.

What's striking about the recommendations is how consistently they aimed to improve state government's efficiency and accountability. They may not all have been crowd-pleasing or easy, but they had a better chance of actually achieving what they set out to do than the measures masquerading as reforms in Sacramento today.

On the budget side, the most important recommendation was to reduce the two-thirds vote required to pass budget spending bills in the Legislature to a simple majority vote in both houses. The panel observed that the two-thirds rule permits special interests to shoehorn irrelevant issues into the budget debate by holding spending bills hostage. Moreover, the commission found, by allowing the minority to stall the budget indefinitely, it ends up encouraging more spending, not less.

To quell fears that the majority rule would encourage uncontrolled budget growth, the commission proposed that any bill to raise taxes still require a supermajority.

The majority provision would even the balance of power between the governor and Legislature; it would prevent the sort of stunt that occurred this month in Sacramento, when the GOP minority blocked a Democratic budget bill to help Schwarzenegger paint the majority as big spenders. Wherever possible, the commission tried to force the governor and Legislature to reach budget decisions cooperatively, rather than giving the governor unilateral power.

To make the Legislature worthy of this partnership, the commission sought to liberalize term limits. Especially in the Assembly, the limits -- passed only a few years earlier -- meant that novices in their first terms perpetually constituted as much as half the membership. The commission proposed lengthening the 14-year overall term limit to 24 years, with no more than 12 years in either house. This would allow legislators to gain the expertise and professionalism required to do their jobs well, without letting them build permanent nests inside the state capitol.

Finally, the commission suggested that initiatives amending the Constitution appear only on general election ballots in November, to prevent politicians or special interests from manipulating the small turnouts characteristic of special elections and primaries. (Under this rule, "Live Within Our Means" would be ineligible for this November's special election.) The Legislature would have the right to revise any statutory initiative six years after its passage -- a way to address the sloppy drafting that infects initiatives as a class.

In spirit and letter, all these proposals are still applicable to today's California. While measures like "Live Within Our Means" are designed largely to enhance the governor's grandeur, the commission aimed to give all branches of government commensurate responsibility; where today's reforms treat every problem as occurring in its own vacuum, the commission saw dysfunctional government as a problem demanding an integrated solution.

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