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Reforming government step by step

A California think tank's multi-pronged ballot proposal draws opposition from labor, environmentalists and the governor's strategists. The group may have to pare its plan and settle for what it can get.

April 12, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • California Forward has probably spent $20 million developing and pushing reforms, according to former Democratic state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.
California Forward has probably spent $20 million developing and pushing… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

SACRAMENTO — Good reform ideas are a dime a dozen. Look in any faculty lounge. But successful strategies for implementing those ideas are rare.

Espousing sweeping reform that can't be enacted because it's politically unacceptable is a common habit of profs, pols and pundits.

There also are idealists unwilling to compromise, who'd rather strike out than bunt the runner to the next base.

California Forward, a blue-ribbon reform group, is none of that. But the think tank provides a case study of how difficult it is to enact significant change when confronted by the status quo.

Not that every proposed reform is golden or all status quo rotten. But meaningful change usually requires both good policy and astute politics because, ultimately, competing interests and the public must sign off.

California Forward has been trying for years, with limited success. Formed in 2008 and financed by foundations, it was initially co-chaired by Leon Panetta, the current U.S. defense secretary who had been a congressman from Monterey and chief of staff for President Clinton.

"The principal dysfunction of Sacramento," Panetta told me back then, "is similar to what's happening in Washington: the inability of the elected leadership to come together and arrive at necessary compromises for solutions to the problems we face."

Little has changed.

California Forward has probably spent $20 million developing and pushing reforms, according to Panetta's replacement, former Democratic state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. So far it hasn't been able to place its own reform on the ballot.

It was influential in promoting three reforms sponsored by others that did get approved by voters: independent redrawing of political districts, open state primaries and majority-vote budgets.

The redistricting and open primary reforms — designed to elect more pragmatists — kick in this year. The majority-vote budget took effect last year, sparing the state another summer of legislative stalemate caused by the old need for a two-thirds vote.

That process — enacting one reform at a time — is equivalent to bunting the runner along. Or, in reform lingo, call it incrementalism.

"The secret to reforming," Hertzberg says, "is understanding incrementalism and not trying to be so big and so bold. You've got to align interests." He's critical of "overzealous reformers" and people "just trying to stop something, rather than trying to do something."

Currently, California Forward is confronted by interests bent on stopping a proposed budget reform initiative it is trying to qualify for the November ballot. Behind-the-scenes resistance is coming from, you name it: labor, environmentalists, legislative wonks and Gov. Jerry Brown's strategists, who desire a clear field for the governor's tax-increase proposal.

The reform organization is collecting voter signatures — a $3-million project — and says it has almost enough to turn in for validating. It faces an early May deadline. But the interests want the group, at minimum, to back off and compromise on a more mundane measure. And it may do that.

As written, after two years in the making, the ambitious and complex initiative would:

-- Prevent the Legislature from expanding programs or granting tax breaks that cost the treasury more than $25 million unless it paid for them with spending cuts or tax increases.

This would seem to be a logical step to cure deficit spending.

But it's the equivalent of a dreaded spending limit, labor and Democrats complain. They note that a tax hike is virtually impossible for the Legislature to pass because new levies still require a two-thirds vote.

"It freezes in spending at the lowest point in the economy," says Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Assn. The provision is "pretty much fatal" for the initiative in labor's view, Low asserts.

-- Empower the governor to unilaterally cut spending in a fiscal emergency if the Legislature refuses.

That would be a huge shift of power to the governor, Democrats assert. And they're right. But a fiscal emergency could be resolved by an old-fashioned solution: compromise.

-- Authorize local elected officials to tweak state laws to provide public services more efficiently, unless the Legislature objected. And local entities would get an extra $200 million in state revenue.

Oops! A little problem here. The idea of local politicians — particularly in conservative counties — reshaping a state law unless the dysfunctional Legislature vetoed the move is fraught with danger for labor and environmentalists.

It "creates very serious risks to environmental laws such as [those] protecting air quality, water quality, the coast and endangered species," complains Tom Adams, longtime activist at the California League of Conservation Voters.

Besides, Democrats point out, Sacramento doesn't have $200 million to spare for local government.

-- Change budgeting practices.

State budgets would be enacted for two years, rather than one. The budget would be updated in the second year. The idea is to plan ahead. Critics roll their eyes.

Agencies would be funded based on the performance of their programs. The Legislature passed such a bill last year and Brown vetoed it. Too much work, he implied.

The Legislature would have to spend the final summer of every two-year cycle conducting oversight of state programs. In an election year? Good luck.

No bill could be passed unless it had been in print for three days. That's to prevent end-of-session shenanigans. Great idea. But lawmakers would find a loophole.

My guess is California Forward will shelve the $25-million spending limit and local agency proposals and compromise with the Legislature on gubernatorial powers and budgeting changes.

Accept part of a loaf. The rest isn't cooked. Interests and a suspicious public have delicate appetites. They can digest only so much reform in one gulp.

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