California’s Democratic legislators have been living in fantasyland since November. They’ve spent much of the last year coasting on supermajorities hard-won and largely un-used, congratulating themselves on a job well done. The party leadership is clearly unaware of how hollow their self-satisfaction rings across a state that was terrorised for a decade by the Republican Party’s anti-public agenda, an agenda which was then pressed home with a vengeance by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown between 2011 and 2013.
One of the social groups in the state hit hardest in recent years by public disinvestment, pushed by the state GOP thanks to undemocratic supermajority rules while spineless Democrats looked on, is the student population that populates California’s three-tier system of higher education, once the envy of the world. To be sure, the Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California still provide an excellent education to Californians, and the UC still puts off a glimmer that attracts brilliant students from around the world to study and research there.
But while Prop 30—the centrepiece of Democrats’ supposed roll-back of Republican rule—promised to “fix” UC and CSU, for students, crippling burdens remain. Democrats’ numbers in the legislature might have gone up, but student tuition has remained indefensibly high. Californians pay over $12,000 per year to attend UC at a time when their job prospects on graduation are worse than ever, meaning that the mountain of debt represented by a four-year degree for many students—Berkeley undergraduates who live in campus housing can expect to pay out $33,320 per year by the campus’ own estimates—is a more formidable barrier and daunting proposition than ever.
And the students who aspire to attend UC and CSU face barriers of their own. California’s schools have long been in a tailspin, with class sizes increasing while teachers face a broader array of demands on their time than ever. At the same time, support staff—including those who are critical when it comes to shepherding students who are the first in their families to attend college through the application process—have been cut. Communities have seen libraries closed and an array of other social services—particularly those designed by society to provide for those pushed to the economic brink by forces beyond their control—cut back relentlessly.
For years this was driven by a state Republican Party run by fundamentalist crackpots who were devoted to testing and re-testing an economic model which punished people, entrenched inequality, and promoted poverty instead of providing uplift, levelling the playing field, and creating a safety net. The society that it took decades to build was quickly torn apart.
But today, the waffling cosmetics represented by sad efforts like Prop 30 aside, Democrats are beginning to own the problem. Jerry Brown was elected Governor in 2010 but declined to tackle the structural impediments to governance which famously make California so dysfunctional. Democrats won supermajorities in 2012 but have proved skittish and cowardly in using them. They’ve restricted themselves to broadly popular measures which provide momentary relief while leaving California’s dragons untouched and sometimes even entrenching the most egregious elements of our defective democracy.
Representative of that dysfunction is Proposition 13, passed in 1978 as an act of generational warfare which continues to hamstring our republic 35 years later. Prop 13 entrenches minority rule—absurdly requiring a supermajority to govern effectively—while creating extraordinarily volatility in the state’s revenues thanks to its restrictions on property taxes, simultaneously forcing precisely the kind of centralisation that Republicans purport to hate. Along with a host of other measures down the decades, Prop 13 is turning us into a morally and materially impoverished community, in which systematic inequality and political quagmire are written into our massively overburdened constitution, and given a democratic veneer which makes the Democratic Party afraid to touch them.
Showing more foresight than their counterparts in the California Assembly, Senate, or all-but-empty Governor’s office, students in the ASUC Senate at Berkeley will shortly debate a bill advocating the reform of Prop 13. If student senators agreed on the bill, they would use it to pressure legislators and the governor, calling particular attention to how tapping property taxes through the use of a split roll which treats citizen homeowners differently from commercial and corporate property owners, could help to reinvigorate lapsed state funding for California’s universities.
The ASUC students should be commended for attempting to generate a debate about something that our supposedly-responsible political leaders refuse to discuss. But what we need is something more far-reaching than tinkering with property tax. As described in the Daily Californian, the students’ measure does not address the supermajority requirements enshrined by Prop 13. Nor does it address the litany of detailed requirements regarding tax policy and spending formulas that have been written by decades of propositions into the state constitution, effectively binding legislators’ hands.
SB 9—the students’ measure—is in some respects just a more far-reaching version of Prop 30. It is treating one of the symptoms of California’s democratic disease rather than aiming at the root of the problem.
Students and citizens looking for a roadmap for democratic clarity could do worse than consult Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, which gives a good account of our state’s unmaking. The authors also explain why half-measures where institutional reform are concerned might only make things worse by tightening the restraints on our political structure, which are already so knotted, tangled, and weighted down with constitutional requirements that even Houdini—no less a tight-fisted, mean-spirited opportunist like Jerry Brown—couldn’t escape them.
People dismiss efforts at large-scale reform by saying it would be difficult and messy. I can’t imagine anything messier, more difficult, and ultimately more futile and dispiriting for those who would like to preserve some faith in democratic processes than what we experience now. We live with institutionalised deadlock which forces punishing austerity and prevents us from reacting to economic, social and demographic developments overtaking our state. A generation of self-interested and anti-social voters sought to bring history to a halt, and their actions, combined with the machinations of one political party without a heart and another without a spine, together with a public which refuses to take responsibility for its actions, have degraded California.
While I’d hesitate to say that nothing that came out of rational, wholesale reform could possibly be worse than the current Frankensteinian creation that is state politics, I think we stand a pretty good chance of bettering our the Golden State. That will require the commitment from people in high political office today, and from the public. But it will require a spark, and if ASUC senators can contribute to that, so much the better. But for the sake of California as a whole, they should expand their field of vision and advocate for something more sweeping, substantial, and effective than more of the piecemeal reform which has become the bane of our state’s community.