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The view from 2030

September 18, 2006

LOOKING BACK, A LOT OF what has happened to California in the last few decades was foretold in a little-noticed report issued 24 years ago, in September 2006. Long before Proposition 6 (known as "Deep-Six"), which reinstated the part-time Legislature, and long before last summer's marches on Coto de Caza and adjacent gated communities in Orange County, the Public Policy Institute of California noted that, despite the influx of newcomers to the state, despite the population growth, few new eligible voters were voting. And the events of the last two dozen years show in part what happens when a state's population and a state's voters diverge.

Even in 2006, the study showed, the candidates Californians picked and the initiatives they passed reflected the wants and needs of a voting class made up mostly of older, wealthier, well-educated whites. Back then, whites were a shrinking 46% of the population but remained 70% of the voters -- a disparity that has persisted. The problem was not just immigrants, legal or otherwise. Even new citizens weren't voting. And as younger native-born Californians reached voting age, they generally didn't bother. The study showed that 62% of voters were 45 or older.

California took it in stride at the time. After all, these were the people who had been voting for years and felt that they had a stake not just in society but in democracy itself. The postwar generation that created modern California, and their children, invested in first-rate public institutions, then began rolling back taxes and limiting government power.

By 1999, whites were no longer a majority of Californians. Latinos became the largest group in 2011, and in just a decade, in 2040, they will become the outright majority. But even now, it's the shrinking elite -- the white, wealthy, well-educated homeowners -- that does most of the voting.

The problem is, they don't want what most Californians want. The huge bond measure that Californians rejected in 2006, which would have begun transforming the state's infrastructure, might have passed if all the people who said they supported it had voted. (Of course, the introduction of an airborne Segway in 2020 made freeways obsolete -- but Californians didn't know that in 2006.) The gap between Californians and California voters also doomed the failed library bond of 2012, the failed trauma center bond of 2020, the failed hybrid SUV tax for healthcare in 2022 and, just last year, the ill-fated Proposition 8613, to institute split-roll property taxes, allowing commercial properties to be taxed differently under Proposition 13 than residential ones.

Even in 2006, the institute showed, a majority of Californians wanted the kind of public investment and building for the future -- and sure, even higher taxes, if that's what it took -- that previous generations demanded. The study showed nonvoters unhappy with Proposition 13 and term limits, two of the major planks in the voting population's platform.

We found it hard to feel sorry for those nonvoters then. If they didn't like the state's direction, well, they should have voted! But they didn't appreciate their power and apparently had little faith in democratic government. They still don't, just as the report predicted back in 2006. Blame the political parties and their professional consultants, who did little to attract new voters because they were more comfortable with a small, demographically unified audience for their campaign mailers and commercials.

Now, in 2030, with Coastal California poised to become the 51st state, (despite the heroic efforts of 89-year-old Sen. Barbara Boxer), we are seeing the consequences of Original California's political estrangement. And to think we were warned of it all in 2006.

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