Wednesday, May 20, 2009

California Dreaming

We've heard this before.

General Motors, AIG and Citigroup are too big to fail.

But, what about California, the most populous state in America? It is on the brink of insolvency.

Less than 15% of the state's registered voters Tuesday trashed five state special election ballot measures the legislature proposed in a first step of reforming the ever-increasing deficit now estimated at $25 billion.

The blame game is running wild and most of the finger-pointing is directed at the voters.

Michael Finnegan, political writer for The Los Angeles Times, elicited these observations from the field of California pundits.

"No one's really stepping back and confronting the harsh realities that face our state in a critical sense, because of constraints put on our elected leaders," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. "We're unable to focus on the long term and the big picture at a time when we desperately need to do so."


"We all want a free lunch, but unfortunately that doesn't exist," said former Gov. Gray Davis, whose 2003 recall stemmed largely from a budget crisis brought on by the dot-com bust. For decades, Davis said, Californians have been "papering over this fundamental reality that the state has been living beyond its means."


On Tuesday, Californians showed they were unwilling to scale back their demands in tight times: Voters turned down propositions that would have freed up money that they set aside years ago for mental-health and children's programs.

"The irony is that the more the hands of the Legislature and governor are tied up, the more frustrated people are," said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.


Together, voters' piecemeal decisions since the 1970s have effectively "emasculated the Legislature," said John Allswang, a retired Cal State L.A. history professor.

"They're looking for cheap answers -- throw the guys out of power and put somebody else in, or just blame the politicians and pretend you don't have to raise taxes when you need money," he said.

"This is what the public wants, and they deceive themselves constantly. They're not realistic."


The public's contradictory impulses were laid bare by a recent Field Poll. It found that voters oppose cutbacks in 10 of 12 major categories of state spending, including the biggest, education and healthcare. Yet most voters were unwilling to have their own taxes increased, and they overwhelmingly favored keeping the two-thirds requirement for tax hikes passed in a constitutional amendment in 1978.

"They clearly want more in services than they're willing to pay for in taxes," said Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley.


Also intensifying California's troubles is a surge in debt, often with voter consent at the ballot box, which makes future budgets harder and harder to balance. Under Davis, outstanding general-obligation debt jumped from $26 billion to $37 billion; it has soared to more than $70 billion under current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, according to the state treasurer's office. As a result, California has the worst bond rating among all 50 states.

Adding to the state's difficulties is the complexity of many ballot measures, no doubt a factor in the defeat of the main budget measures that lawmakers put before voters Tuesday.

"We pay the legislators to go to Sacramento and figure these things out," said Denise Spooner, a lecturer on California history at Cal State Fullerton.

As for the cumulative problems created by the last few decades of ballot-measure voting, she said, "I certainly don't think this is what the Progressives had in mind."


To John Hein, a veteran Sacramento campaign consultant, the absence of any master vision by voters appears to be a key flaw in the state's recent history with ballot measures.

"They kind of take each issue in a microcosm, rather than relate the decision to prior decisions, or future decisions that they might make," he said. "Voters don't think about the consequences of how one thing fits with another."


Others point to the term limits that voters imposed on state officials in 1990 as an enduring problem. Lawmakers who focus on quick career advancement tend to neglect California's long-term problems, they say.

Whatever the ups and downs of the proposition system, California's voters have seen themselves for a full century as "the arbiters of the future of the state," said social historian D.J. Waldie. To Waldie, the grim circumstances of Tuesday's election suggest that they are losing faith in any grand ambitions for public investment in California's future.

"I'm rather pessimistic at this point," he said. "We're reaching the point where Californians are throwing in the towel."

Man, oh man. These guys really dished out a spanking to California voters. They're not calling them stupid, by the way. Rather extremely myopic.

The root problem, as I reported in Monday's posting, is the system designed piecemeal by voters over the course of the last 100 years.

There is a movement in the legislature to call for a constitutional convention in 2010 and start from scratch.

A frantic call to the White House at 3 a.m. will fall on deaf ears.

Washington: We have a problem.

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