The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

Peter Schrag: So who's to blame, us or them -- and who's them?

June 04, 2003

Sacramento Bee

By Peter Schrag -- Bee Columnist - (Published June 4, 2003)

The coincident overlap of the silver anniversary of Proposition 13 on June 6 with this year's monstrous state budget mess raises all sorts of intense and angry questions about California's present condition.

Is it our irresponsible politicians who are to blame? Is it the system we created with our orgy of initiatives; is it the safe districts created by the gerrymanders and the other self-serving devices of our politicians; is it the huge size and demographics of a state with an unprecedented number of new immigrants? Or is it something more basic?

A couple of weeks ago, Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Institute, California's premier political polling organization, gave a talk to fellow pollsters in which he pointed out that in 2002 there were 5.5 million more Californians than in 1990, and 2.2 million more adult citizens eligible to vote. But the number of those who actually voted -- roughly 7.9 million -- was smaller, by roughly 160,000, than it had been 12 years before.

As has been reported before, the gradual increase in Latino voters of the past decade had stopped: Seventy-six percent of those voters were non-Hispanic whites, despite the fact that whites are now a minority of the population; only 29 percent had a child living at home, compared to 44 percent of the non-voters; 58 percent were college graduates, compared to 13 percent of the non-voters. They were older, richer and had a higher proportion of homeowners.

Many of those statistics were predictable. Younger, poorer people and immigrant citizens are always less likely to vote than older white residents. It's also true that last November's gubernatorial election gave voters little to be passionate about.

But that hardly makes the statistics any more assuring. Who was it that gave us that dismal choice? That, too, was us.

Proposition 13 has often been blamed on the inaction of Gov. Jerry Brown and a Legislature that responded much too slowly and weakly to California's skyrocketing property tax bills that, in 1977-78, drove the tax revolt that brought Proposition 13.

But while it gave taxpayers the caps they sought, it did nothing to make the political system more responsive or responsible. On the contrary, it made it more impenetrable and brought a generation of initiative-driven reforms -- from term limits to constitutional spending mandates -- that made the state's elected politicians less accountable and more prone to dodges and obfuscation, and the voters ever more cynical and alienated from political engagement.

Gray Davis was elected governor last November with the votes of roughly 16 percent of the 21.4 million adult eligible citizens of California. Republican Bill Simon got 15 percent. Nobody would call that a mandate. Now, barely six months later, we may be on the verge of a recall campaign that can in no way serve as any substantive solution for the dysfunctional government processes and systems that helped create the mess.

The Chamber of Commerce, resisting reforms that would make it easier for the Legislature to act and thus easier for voters to understand what's going on and hold its representatives responsible, proclaims itself the friend of the status quo.

Legislators of both parties, aware that term limits will spare them any real accounting, join in a charade of rollovers and crippling debt that will dump even larger problems on the future.

In that respect they're not so different from their peers in Washington, who pretend that trillion-dollar long-term deficits will make no difference and hope that fear of terrorism will continue to separate us from our common sense. Both are counting on the indifference, ignorance and alienation of the people they claim to represent.

So far, they've been marvelously successful, maybe because we want easy excuses for our cynicism, disengagement and indifference. But California's structural mess is in a class by itself. If it wasn't for Davis (or the no-tax Republicans), goes the complaint, or that huge budget item called waste, fraud and abuse, California wouldn't be in this mess.

But we gave ourselves Davis, and the roots of the mess have been growing for a generation or more, beginning before Proposition 13, but surely exacerbated by it. With every crisis -- property tax spikes, recession, inadequate school funding, political scandal, headline crimes -- we adopt another initiative that makes government still less responsive and impenetrable.

Managing modern government and public policy is complicated, especially in a democracy as large and pluralistic as California's. It can't be successfully run on autopilot or with yet another quick-hit ballot measure or by recalling a governor.

And by definition, it can't be run when much of that society remains unengaged and, in many respects, hostile to its own democracy. Maybe, 25 years after the passage of Proposition 13, we will begin the real lessons of government by initiative: It is no substitute for representative government and an engaged citizenry. As Pogo said: We have met the enemy, and it is us.

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