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Can anyone govern this state?

As crises worsen, some wonder if California is just too big to run well.

December 15, 2008|Evan Halper and Michael Rothfeld | Halper and Rothfeld are Times staff writers.

SACRAMENTO — Gray Davis had just landed in Pennsylvania on a trip last June when he was struck by the differences between that state and the one whose voters drove him out of office early in his second term, blaming his leadership for state government failures that included deep debt and legislative paralysis.

Pennsylvania roads were clean. The state's budget was balanced. Lawmakers had socked enough away in a rainy-day fund to build what was then a decent surplus. Government seemed to run effectively.

"It's not like other people can't do this," the former governor said recently.

But California government is arguably more dysfunctional now than it was when Davis, a Democrat, got the boot. The budget deficit has grown so huge that a shutdown of government services looms. Partisan gridlock grips the Legislature, and lawmakers bicker as the state plunges into crisis.

"The recall absolutely hasn't helped at all," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

The state's latest collision course with insolvency has renewed the question in the Capitol: Has California become ungovernable?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ousted Davis with a campaign built on the premise that the state simply needed the right leader, said last week that there is only so much he can do to tame Sacramento.

"Look, I'm frustrated," the governor told reporters. "I'm sitting here and we have a system where we rely on the 120 legislators to make those decisions. I cannot make them stay here. I cannot lock them into the building. I don't have those kinds of powers. Believe me, I would do it otherwise."

The governor has no shortage of critics who say the fault lies with him. If he were a more effective, engaged leader, they charge, the lawmakers would follow.

"There's only 120 people in the state who don't care when Arnold Schwarzenegger calls them, and it's the members of the Legislature," said Democratic strategist Jason Kinney. "The fact that he has forfeited his relationship and influence over the Legislature has hurt him."

Others say this nation-state is so oversized, Balkanized and polarized that it is destined for dysfunction no matter who is in charge. They cite its influx of immigrants, its constant tensions over water supply and its large, self-contained regions that bear little resemblance to one another.

It has even been suggested that the state should break into multiple, more manageable pieces. More than two dozen attempts at that have been tried over the years, the latest by a Northern California lawmaker in the early 1990s. More recently, a blog called Three Californias was created to advocate carving California out of the union and turning it into a new country with three states.

The state's Constitution also makes governing a challenge. California is one of only three states that require two-thirds of the Legislature to agree on a budget. A few lawmakers from the minority party can derail a spending plan -- and they do, sometimes to the point of preventing the government from paying its bills.

And California's heavy use of the initiative system, intended to let voters solve problems when lawmakers don't, has created conflicting mandates that experts say undermine rational policymaking.

Some of the political leaders who for years have been engaged in efforts -- largely unsuccessful -- to make state government run better fret that the current dysfunction creates a fertile environment for more shortsighted ballot measures.

"If this continues, there is the danger that the public will again express itself through an initiative or some kind of constitutional convention or something that will become a vehicle for their anger with elected leaders," said Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and White House advisor who co-chairs California Forward, a bipartisan think tank focused on solving the state's problems. "God knows where that will take us. The danger is it will lead to the wrong steps being taken."

Panetta said the political process has broken down.

"For whatever reason, democracy is not working in Sacramento right now," he said. "I am convinced it can be fixed. But people have to make sacrifices" -- in politics and policy.

Davis concurred that, in theory, the state is governable. But "in reality," he said, "it hasn't been governed properly for a long time."

In his view, the problem stems from extremist politics that began three decades ago with the anti-tax movement that led to Proposition 13 and has continued with gerrymandered legislative districts that make lawmakers accountable only to the party faithful who vote in primary elections.

Analysts say that if Schwarzenegger had the ability to make California more governable, it has declined substantially since the recall, when his immense popularity gave him political capital. Now he is a lame duck with a financial crisis that he can no longer argue was inherited from another administration.

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