Thursday, June 13, 2013

Optimism: California's Drug of Choice

'What state do you live in?’ is a question I often get when researching abroad.  Depending on how much home news I’ve been reading at the time, I often have to stifle the desire to reply, ‘Denial’. 

This was how I felt when reading the celebratory columns and news stories about California’s annual budget, balanced (in theory) and on-time...a distinct novelty after years of inconclusive bickering brought on by a political structure so knotted, tangled, and weighted down with constitutional requirements that even Houdini couldn’t escape them. 

George Skelton, the grand old man of the Golden State’s political commentariat led the charge to the victory celebration in his Los Angeles Times article titled “Give Credit to California Voters”.  

Skelton’s a more charitable man than I, but before unpacking the title, let’s examine exactly what he thinks has been achieved by the trio who led budget negotiations—Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez, and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. 

“The California legislature”, Skelton proclaimed grandly, “no longer is dysfunctional.  Erase that word from its profile.  It is functioning.  But let’s not forget where most of the credit belongs for a punctual, sensible budget.  It’s with another, oft-maligned group: the California voters”. 

Skelton credits Prop 25 (which dispensed with the supermajority requirement where budget passage was concerned) with “liberat[ing] the Legislature and governor from oppressive gridlock”.  The other crucial measure, Skelton believes, was Proposition 30 (the temporary tax measure passed in November), which “staunch[ed] the budget bleeding” and prevented the state’s political leaders from starting the year “whacking programs instead of beginning to restore some”. 

Skelton—who at this time last year was whining about Republicans being left out of the political process and talking about the peril posed by the ‘far left’—also praises the compromise-oriented budget, which saw Brown and top Democrats (Republicans were notably absent after losing enough seats in the legislature in November that Democrats now possess supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly) give and take where school funding formulas were concerned. 

Dan Walters, who broods up at the Capitol in the Bee’s pages, was quick to rain on the pols’ parade, pointing out that the long-term financial forecast might be less balmy than Brown, Perez, and Steinberg would have us believe.  Unsurprisingly, central to his claim—that there will be a reckoning tomorrow for the triumphalism of today—is the issue of California’s political structure, and the absence of rational reform from the conversation.

For I have to disagree with Skelton, and say that the passage of a balanced budget in 2013 had nothing to do with the good sense of voters, he maturity of the Democratic leadership, or with the “liberation” of our politics from gridlock.  Instead, we may put the budget down to the perfect storm of the 2012 election.

Let’s think about the context for that election.  Our state had seen decades of debilitating cuts, cuts of mounting severity which did great violence to our social contract, hacked at our higher education sector, battered K-12 education, eviscerated early-childhood education, reduced care to the elderly and disabled, threatened to shutter our state parks, closed libraries in cities across the state, and in general ransacked the public domain that serves as a bulwark, a civic space, and a protector and provider—in one way or another—for all Californians.

In 2012, after yet another round of cuts implemented by our gimlet-eyed Democratic governor, the inexplicable darling of progressives, voters allowed themselves to be convinced by Brown’s dishonest campaign that Proposition 30 represented a “fix”. 

With Prop 30 providing the revenues needed for a ‘balanced’ budget (a description which Walters maintains is open to question), and Democrats emboldened by supermajorities, the process to budget passage did indeed look smooth.

But what happens when the money from Prop 30—funds which go nowhere near to undoing the damage of past decades—runs out?  What if we want a budget that includes revenue increases but can’t get a version of Prop 30 passed?  Then the supermajority requirement kicks back in, because thanks to Prop 13 (passed in 1978), we still require a supermajority in the legislature for revenue increases.  Absent intervention from voters—and history suggests that we would be unwise to depend on such intervention—the only kind of budget we can get absent one party possessing two supermajorities is an austerity budget.  Democrats currently possess those, but their victories could well prove fleeting.

So at the end of the day, contrary to Skelton’s claims, legislators and the executive are anything but liberated from budgetary and structural shackles.  In fact, they are tied more tightly than ever to the whims of voters.  Does this mean that ballot-box budgeting is going to become the norm in California?  Does it mean that the health of our public sector and the welfare of our citizens is going to be tied to election cycles and the ability of political and corporate interests to spend enough money to win passage of piecemeal funding initiatives?  That is a prospect which I find alarming. 

Real political reform—reform which would make California governable instead of subjecting it to this madcap farce which passes for process—would remove the supermajority requirement on revenue, rationalise the relationship between voters and their elected representatives, restore government by the living instead of the government from the grave offered by Prop 13 and other initiatives, and recognise that a commitment to an equal, caring society, rather than mindless optimism, should be the characteristics of our political thinking.

If you want an idea of what a successful polity might look like, don’t spare a glance for this year’s state budget, which is fuelled by an overdose of optimism—California’s drug of choice.  Instead, you could do far worse than turn to Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ treatise on our state’s political structure, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. 

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