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Why California can't be governed

Six key factors, including Prop. 13 and term limits, have brought California to the brink.

June 25, 2009|Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine | Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine cover California politics at

Afew hours after California voters approved his Proposition 13 tax-cut measure on June 6, 1978, a bibulous and exultant Howard Jarvis dropped his pants for the benefit of a few reporters gathered in his suite at the L.A. Biltmore Hotel.

A reporter had asked Jarvis why he was limping, so his ostensible reason was to show a large, ugly bruise, which he'd suffered in a fall a few days before, on his ample, boxer-clad behind. The surprise gesture, however, also afforded the earthy and profane Jarvis a chance to display his contempt for the press and, by extension, the political class that had mocked him and opposed his cherished measure.

Thirty years later, the ghost of Jarvis and his legacy initiative still aim antipathy, scorn and disdain at California's government and its leaders. Proposition 13 was the first, and most far-reaching, in a cascade of political decisions over the last three decades that have shaped the dysfunctional structure of governance in the state.

Simply put, California today is ungovernable.

As state and local officials struggle to weather the state's fiscal crisis, they wield power with the damaged machinery of a patchwork government system that lacks accountability, encourages stalemate and drifts but cannot be steered.

In this system, elected leaders carry responsibility, but not authority, for far-reaching policies about public revenues and resources. That's not governance -- it's reactive management of a deeply flawed status quo.

Here is a look at six key factors that have made California impossible to govern. Proposition 13: The fiscal effect of Proposition 13 itself is only part of the damage the initiative did to California. Even worse have been the methods Capitol politicians devised to try to lessen the measure's financial impact. After Proposition 13 passed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-dominated Legislature realigned -- "tangled" would be more accurate -- the relationship between state and local governments by effectively shifting control of remaining property tax revenue to Sacramento. In a crisis atmosphere, they radically transformed California's political landscape, taking power and responsibility for health, welfare, schools and other local services away from city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, thereby establishing today's chaotic maze of overlapping jurisdiction, which defies efforts at accountability.

Budget initiatives: Proposition 13 also ushered in an era of ballot-box budgeting, as fiscal initiatives became a favored special-interest tool to take control of public fund expenditures. A series of post-13 initiatives -- including measures creating the lottery, financing public schools by mathematical formula and earmarking revenues for special programs, from mental health to medical care -- established an exquisitely complex state budget calculus that has hamstrung the rational operations of government.

Gerrymandering: The once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps based on the census has created an increasingly partisan Capitol atmosphere. Reapportionment has become essentially an incumbent protection effort, as lawmakers craft districts that are either safely Democratic or safely Republican. In this way, the crucial contests are party primaries, not the general elections. Because primaries draw the most partisan voters, the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats tend to win the nominations that guarantee election in November. The dynamic locks in ideological polarization in Sacramento, where lawmakers have little motivation to compromise.

Term limits: Despite the claims of backers, the 1990 term-limits initiative did not get rid of career politicians -- it simply changed the arc of their careers. Instead of spending decades in the same Assembly or Senate district seat, legislators position themselves for the next office -- or job as a lobbyist -- as soon as they arrive in Sacramento. The up-or-out system rewards short-term, self-interested political thinking more than long-term policymaking in the public interest. Term limits also make lobbyists, not the Legislature, the repository of Capitol expertise; that lobbyists are useful in raising campaign cash adds an overlay of soft corruption to the process.

Boom-and-bust taxation: Since Proposition 13, state government has become increasingly dependent on volatile sources of revenue -- the sales, corporation and progressive personal income taxes -- that generate annual shifts in tax collections corresponding closely to the business cycle. When economic times are good, as during the dot-com and housing bubbles, money pours in and there's little political incentive -- in fact, term limits create a perverse disincentive -- for long-term financial planning. When revenues contract, the Capitol has rarely made real spending reductions, preferring to wait for the next boom.

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