Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rational Reform in California: If Not Now, When?

For a brief moment in2012 after California Democrats won supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg was “Mr Reform”, promising that under the new dispensation, Democrats would tackle the state’s mangled political structure.  Those of us who had read our Mark Paul and Joe Mathews (co-authors of California Crackup, a lucid treatise on the need for sweeping structural reform in the Golden State) hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that Steinberg might embrace rational reform.
It was perhaps always unlikely, and even in the heady aftermath of the Democrats’ 2012 sweep, the leadership was cautious.  But the extent to which Steinberg, his counterpart in the Assembly John Perez, and (completely unsurprisingly to those who have observed his opportunistic, Machiavellian ways) Governor Jerry Brown have failed to learn the central lesson about California’s political structure propounded by Paul and Mathews—that to do reform right, that reform must be concerted and wholesale, or else you just end up tacking another limb onto the Frankensteinian construction that is California’s politics—is depressing.

Earlier this month, Steinberg declared that the monstrosity that symbolises the need to overhaul governance in the state—Proposition 13—is not something he’s prepared to address this year.  As quoted in the Sacramento Bee, Steinberg has this to say about the prospects for reform: “The question of lowering voter thresholds for the specific taxes on the local level, which is really the beginning of that conversation...definitely should be had and probably will be had at some point in this two-year session.  But let’s have 2013 be a year where we are focussed on bread and butter”.

I can understand that for strategic purposes, Democrats in the legislature might want to time things carefully.  2013 might not be the year.  On the other hand, defections to the lobbying world already temporarily deprived them of their supermajority, signalling how fleeting their moment of governance might be.  The consensus seems to be that the Republicans will continue their inexorable decay, but I’m not sure that I’d like to depend on that. 

I hope that the Democrats do have a serious strategy for reform, and that this isn’t simply a case of today’s legislators’ political cowardice putting off decisions for tomorrow’s powerbrokers, i.e. until a time when someone else is in charge, when someone else will have to make the hard call, and when someone else might possibly have to take responsibility for doing the right thing.

I fear that the party’s triumph in 2012 might actually have dulled their desire for reform.  The Governor sold his band-aid—Prop 30—as a grand fix, and for his own purposes is eager to pretend that he has somehow mastered the complexity of state governance.  Steinberg’s reticence might stem from a feeling that he should defer to our anti-Governor who has made ducking hard problems his life’s work.

Steinberg’s comments also illustrate additional perils: namely, that Democrats—and reformers of any stripe—will revert to practising the same piecemeal reform which—argue Paul and Mathews, quite convincingly—got us into our current state of disarray; and secondly, that political leaders in the state still do not understand the relationship between a broken structure and their ability to deliver on the “bread and butter” issues.

If they want to talk about specific thresholds for specific taxes, they are not going to fix the Crackup.  They might, as previous piecemeal reformers have done, make things worse.  “Taxes” aren’t a separate sphere of governance.  State revenues are central to everything else the state does, and the product of reform should not just be a temporary state of affairs favourable to Democratic politicians, but a refashioned politics—a politics which is more small-‘d’ democratic and representative; a political system less prone to breakdown; a framework in which we reconcile the rights of voters with their responsibilities; in which popular democracy and politics are not competing impulses, but one and the same. 

In their conclusion to California Crackup, Paul and Mathews leave readers with the suggestion that an open hand might be the best “symbol of the transformation California needs—the unclenching of a fist.  The scroll at the state capitol in Sacramento reads: ‘Bring Me Men to Match My Mountains!’  California already has such men and women.  What the state requires, and has never had, are rules, good rules, clear and limited, and yet grand enough to match its mountains and to meet its future” (192).

If Senator Steinberg and his caucus are seriously interested in reconfiguring the politics of our state—and they neglect California’s burning need for such reform at their peril—they must approach the issue in a holistic and determined manner.  Half-measures will not do, and it would be to their everlasting shame, and that of their party, if they squandered the opportunity to govern by failing to address what most stands between the state of our dreams and that of our nightmares—California’s current inability to be governed.

I think I am not alone in asking Senator Steinberg and his colleagues: “If not now, when?”

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