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Some advice for the Golden State's next governor

Turning California around won't be quick, easy or painless, a group of experts says. And citizens are going to have to come off of the sidelines.

November 03, 2010|Steve Lopez

So here we are again, having wasted another perfectly good campaign season. The next governor of California is no doubt reaching out this morning to a loved one, a crisis hotline operator or perhaps a fortune-teller and repeating the infamous line uttered by an ashen-faced Robert Redford at the end of the movie "The Candidate":

"What do we do now?"

Good question. Whether the winner is Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman (this column was written before the race was decided), he or she has inherited a state that's going broke, with a hapless gang of junior varsity legislators and a cranky electorate.

In a perfect world, we'd have a clue as to what the winner intends to do about all of this. But in the bankrupt world of American politicking, strategy and substance take a back seat to housekeepers and whores, if you know what I mean.

As a gift to the new governor, I'd like to offer congratulations, condolences and a package of suggestions from some Californians I spoke with in the days leading into the election. I asked several people who keep an eye on Sacramento to recommend what legislators and the public can do to help the state avoid more ridicule from the likes of David Letterman, who recently said that things are so bad in California, "they've cancelled the next three mudslides."

Now look, I'm not going to lie to anyone. My panel of experts wasn't exactly optimistic. Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, suggested praying for an economic recovery. And Chris Thornberg of Beacon Economics also brought up religion.

"Saying what should be done and getting it through the Sacramento political machine are two different things," Thornberg said. "I don't have a freaking clue. You need Gov. Jesus Christ to show up and lead us all to the promised land."

OK, but in that scenario, what would Jesus do?

Redistribute the wealth, probably. There are "vast swaths of very wealthy people who get away with paying very little," said Thornberg, and that piles more of the burden on those with smaller paychecks.

And we won't ever avoid budget holes, said Thornberg, unless we acknowledge that the state is "massively over-relying on personal income tax." The economy dips, the treasury shrinks, teachers are laid off and the school janitor gets swept out.

Then there's the Prop. 13 problem, in which residents of the same block pay vastly different property tax bills, based not on the current value of their homes but on their value at the time of purchase. Under the same formula, corporations make out like bandits, because commercial real estate turns over less often than residential property.

Thornberg said he thinks a fair way to help even out the state's revenue stream, and maintain services, would be to lower the sales tax and increase income taxes. People would scream, of course. Especially those who are hurting. But others would scream for another reason.

"People are greedy," Thornberg said. "They'll blow money on all sorts of stupid stuff, but if taxes go up 3%, it's the end of the world."

Will the new governor, whoever the poor schmuck is, have the guts to speak like this?

Let's say the winner is Jerry Brown, who has already passed this way a couple times, and helped create the current mess by failing to anticipate and derail Prop. 13. Honesty can be his penance, don't you think? What would a 72-year-old man have to lose in telling people there will have to be more budget cuts and more stable revenue sources or nothing will change?

That brings me back to Cain, who had this to say when I asked what good citizens should do:

"They need to get real. Seriously. They cannot have something for nothing.... If we want below the national average taxes, then we need to adjust to lower-than-average services."

Boy, this is drearier than I thought. And nobody has even mentioned lifting term limits yet.

Thank goodness for Barbara O'Connor, who has a slightly more optimistic take on the future of the Golden State. The recently retired head of Cal State Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media said it's a positive sign that we've begun a conversation on pension reform, and with open primaries and redistricting, there's a better chance of electing moderates with at least a passing interest in compromise.

It's hard to get excited about slow, incremental change, though. Can't we just blow up the boxes? Oh, wait. Didn't someone already promise that? Right. And all that Arnold blew up was his own political career.

There's no magic wand, said Dan Schnur, a GOP strategist and head of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"It's going to take a while for change to happen, and our new governor is going to have to avoid raising expectations too high on [the] one hand without depressing people on the other," Schnur said.

Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, would love to see the governor and legislators get past the dysfunction and bickering that make them so reviled and inept, but she doesn't assign all the blame to politicians.

"We, the people of California, are really the ones to blame for the mess we're in," said Hernandez, because we haven't been aggressive watchdogs.

"Put down the People magazine and start paying attention to what's going on," echoed Thornberg, saying the nonsense in Sacramento and Bell are due in large part to public apathy.

"Change has to start with us."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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