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Bid to remake California state government finds major benefactor

Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen has assembled a politically diverse group and pledged at least $20 million to press its proposals for transforming how Sacramento operates.

October 27, 2010|By Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — An eccentric, globetrotting multibillionaire who doesn't own a home in California — or anywhere, for that matter; he says he has little use for owning things — is about to breathe life into efforts to shake up Sacramento.

Nicolas Berggruen will give at least $20 million to a group of Californians who long to restructure state government so it is more responsive to voters, more responsible with public funds and ready to reposition the state to meet the challenges of today's economy.

On Wednesday, he will bring together a who's who of California public policy on the campus of Google — a symbol of California innovation — to announce that he is putting up his millions to help push forward whatever the group agrees upon in the next six months as changes needed to make state government work again.

Berggruen, 49, says he envisions a California government that is competent, flexible and efficient — able to close the innovation and entrepreneurship gap that is emerging between California and places such as Singapore and China.

The members he has chosen for the Think Long Committee for California run the ideological gamut. Reaganite George Schultz and Bush administration veteran Condoleezza Rice will weigh in, as will Democrats Willie Brown and Gray Davis. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad will also serve on the committee. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be a guest at the first meeting.

"We need to be able to think much more long term," Berggruen said in an interview. "We need to be able to prioritize things that may not be popular in the short term but are really helpful in the long term and have an administrative branch that is competitive and meritocratic."

Despite all the talk by elder statesmen and analysts in recent years of fixing California's broken system of government — in spite of the commissions, the reports, the scathing public approval ratings of the status quo — not much has changed. There is general agreement in Sacramento that too many well-funded interests have effectively blocked such efforts.

Berggruen was a virtual unknown in California politics until recently. Then he contributed $250,000 to oppose the measure on next week's statewide ballot that would suspend California's landmark global warming law, Proposition 23. He travels the world acquiring controlling stakes in companies including Spain's largest newspaper publishing firm, a major German retail chain and a renewable-energy interest in Turkey.

"I haven't been involved in politics here and, frankly, don't want to be," he said. "I'm interested in positive reform. If this works in California, we can … do this in other places. I'm not interested in a political career.... I'm not trying to promote a narrow political view."

Berggruen, whose reading matter tends toward Sartre and Confucius, says in California he will be promoting common sense. For him, that means more constitutional controls on state spending, a halt to runaway pension costs, more authority for local government and new accountability measures for government programs. He also favors the creation of an endowment of sorts for the state university system that would help limit tuition and provide funds to attract and retain top teaching and research talent.

Davis, who has been pushing for budget reforms since being recalled from office in 2003, calls Berggruen's arrival in the movement "a potential game changer."

"If we really want to make California a more attractive place to operate in, live in, do business in, there are a lot of things that need to be done," he said. "This group is saying, 'We are not going to sit on the sidelines.' "

Berggruen's cash is key. A shortage of funds forced the organizers of a state constitutional convention to abandon their plan, which had drawn a lot of attention and enthusiasm. The think tank California Forward lost momentum when lawmakers balked at its plans and nobody stepped forward with funds to put the group's proposals before voters.

"This gives life to the reform movement," said former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat who co-chairs the nonpartisan California Forward and will sit on Berggruen's advisory committee. "The left has been spending money to protect its interests, and so has the right."

Now, Hertzberg said, the policy wonks and political old hands who see a path forward have a legitimate seat at the table.

Berggruen was unknown to Hertzberg until the two talked by phone earlier this year. Hertzberg wanted an immediate face-to-face meeting, so he flew to Panama for a six-hour confab aboard Berggruen's private jet.

"He evidenced a deep understanding of what was going on in California," Hertzberg said. "I lit up. He saw the world the same way I do. He sees California as a bellwether state, that this is a challenge to democracy, that we have to remain economically viable."

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