Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Political Reform in California Should Extend Beyond Prop 13

My laptop currently feels like it’s on its last legs.  It gasps its way through a morning of writing about Ugandan Elephant Control Departments, gets a quick break around lunch, and then wheezes through an afternoon focussing on imperial wildlife surveys, giving a sigh of relief as I take off for dinner.  The only thing keeping it going is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, a massive tome which keeps it lifted off the desk to allow air flow to its lungs.  Absent the support offered by the ex-Governator’s life story, it shuts itself down with infuriating regularity.


Schwarzenegger’s book is called Total Recall, and it reminded me of his turn as Governor.  Recklessly right-wing in many respects—although never enough so for his party’s base—Schwarzenegger nonetheless took a swing at the issue of political reform.  He did so in a chaotic and ill-informed fashion, but he tried, which is more than can be said of his successor.

It is becoming a commonplace that California’s deadlock is not so much the product of the “partisanship” that media hacks bemoan.  Rather, it is something built into our state’s political DNA.  There are undoubted benefits associated with direct democracy.  But in California, the primary tool of direct democracy—the initiative—is not integrated into the political realm.  So we end up with voters calling for investment in infrastructure while undercutting the ability of their representatives to make that investment.  People will construct what they think is a floor under education funding that a few years down the line becomes a constraint. 

Because many initiatives are constitutional amendments, California now possesses one of the world’s lengthiest constitutions.  A document designed to provide guidelines and frameworks instead operates like a straitjacket, as each generation tacks on a series of items from its wish list, tightening the bonds on successive generations.  Negotiating the state’s political landscape is akin to waltzing across a minefield: no one, least of all the representatives on whom we’ve imposed term limits, remembers where an initiative from long-ago might be lurking to sabotage a present-day effort at social or economic legislation.

Mark Paul and Joe Mathews, authors of the leading tract on political reform in the state (California Crackup), argue convincingly that political reform needs to be wholesale, or else our effort to “fix” the state will simply comprise another set of chains and locks on a body politic already so weighted down with conflicting imperatives that it couldn’t escape if it had the skills of a Houdini.

A good example of the problem California faces comes in the form of Proposition 13.  Passed in 1978, this initiative represents the view of one generation of voters that we should provide a giant giveaway to large property owners, while allowing political minorities to run the state unchecked by controlling its finances.  The measure was sold as protection for the average Californian, but such were the restrictions on the ability of the state to raise revenue (Prop 13 not only capped property taxes severely, but also imposed an undemocratic two-thirds threshold for raising any taxes whatsoever) that the public sphere which serves the average Californian has been eviscerated.  Proponents of the measure refused to contemplate a split roll that would have taxed corporate property owners at a higher rate than homeowners, foreshadowing the Right’s embrace of corporate personhood, something which has emerged nationally in the form of “Citizens United”.

Polls indicate that the public is experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse about Prop 13 (and no wonder, given the damage it has done to our schools, universities, infrastructure, and the social fabric of our communities).  Today, even the likes of the LA Times’ George Skelton is calling for reform of Prop 13.  Skelton—a man whose will probably stipulates that he be buried under a fence given that he’s spent most of his journalistic life sitting atop one—is not given to statements of passion.  But the veteran columnist recently called California’s leadership to task for failing to understand that voters are increasingly open to reforming Prop 13 and our broken system of governance. 

Students are also turning their attention to Prop 13, seeing reform of the undemocratic initiative as key to restoring public funding to California’s universities.  UC Berkeley’s student newspaper recently endorsed efforts to reform the initiative, citing the work of a student group, Fund the UC, as an example of the type of approach that could lead to more money for the state’s ailing higher education sector.

There are serious obstacles to reform.  The legislative route is almost certainly a non-starter.  Unlike Schwarzenegger, Governor Jerry Brown has no interest in tackling a serious issue like political reform, and has demonstrated a positively mulish refusal to actively govern California.  Cautious and opportunistic to a fault, Brown—who equated public funding for higher education with a “bailout”—is dead weight on the state.  The California Republican Party remains dominated by economic fundamentalists and social zealots.  Their constituents might be suffering the effects of Prop 13 along with anyone else, but there will be no institutional backing from the right for serious political reform, which would damage the party’s relationship with its corporate handlers.

This leaves the initiative route.  But this is where we should learn some of the lessons that Paul and Mathews offer in their book: Prop 13, while a particularly egregious example of the California malaise, is not the only problem, and reforming it will not address the yawning democratic deficit which is the primary obstacle to progress in our state.

Critics of Prop 13 should widen their gaze and focus on the political structure which enabled the passage of Prop 13 and which is littered with similarly ill-conceived initiatives which allow for what Thomas Paine called “government from the grave”.  Paul and Mathews provide concrete examples of what more sweeping political reform might look like, and it is encouraging.

I hope that the murmurs around Prop 13 grow louder, and that they come to constitute a broader conversation about how to overhaul our polity to make California a more democratic, just, and equal place, in which we recognise the value of investing in public institutions and thinking about a collective good. 

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