Monday, May 18, 2009

The Most Dysfunctional State In America

Few eyes in the world, including those in California, will be focusing on Tuesday's state special election which sets out to prove it is the most financially dysfunctional government in the nation.

Most of the six ballot measures, according to recent polls, will fail, sending the state into deeper economic chaos. Even if they pass, the state's fiscal problems will only be prolonged. The only measure expected to pass is one limiting pay increases for state legislators.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter May 11 to the legislature warning it that, by his latest estimates, the state will face a budget gap of $15.4 billion if the ballot measures pass, $21.3 billion if they fail. Prisoners will have to be released, firefighters fired, and other services cut or eliminated.

The problem, folks, is the state's constitution, third longest behind India and the state of Alabama. If you think the U.S. Senate's 60-vote majority rule is cumbersome, in California it takes a two-thirds (67%) vote for the legislature to pass a budget and increase taxes. Most statewide fiscal initiatives to change the constitution take only a simple majority. When that happens, voters grow more hostile because the state does not have the money to pay for them.

A by-product of this is that California now has the lowest bond rating among all 50 states.

Because of quirky and arcane laws dating back to the Progressive Era in 1910, it no longer is the citizens who control the legislature but special interest groups and lobbyists and entrenched politicians from both parties protected by gerrymandered assembly and senate district boundaries.

California is one of 24 states that allow referendums, recalls and voter initiatives. But it is the only state that does not allow its legislature to override successful initiatives and has no sunset clauses that let them expire. It also uses initiatives far more, and more irresponsibly, than any other state.

In short, it is democracy at its worse.

If its representative democracy functioned well, that might not be so debilitating. But it does not. Only a minority of Californians bother to vote, and those voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population, says Steven Hill at the New America Foundation, a think-tank that is analyzing the options for reform.

I am a native Californian, a longtime political observer, and nothing that happens in state government surprises me. I'm always fascinated how others look upon my state and as it just so happens everything I suspected is laid out in this article in The Economist.

No comments: