The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

If they'd acted 10 years ago, could crisis have been avoided?

November 10, 2003

Oakland Tribune

By Steve Geissinger - SACRAMENTO BUREAU

SACRAMENTO - It was clearly time to overhaul state government.

The governor and lawmakers were frustrated by a crippled budget process, a gridlocked Legislature and dysfunctional relations between the state and local governments.

Essentially declaring the state in crisis, they summoned experts who found ``dire need for change'' and recommended that voters be asked to approve a 35-point overhaul of the California Constitution - the root of many of the problems.

Did this all happen last year amid the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall? Nope.

The lurch toward constitutional revision - spurred by chillingly familiar woes - occurred a decade ago.

``I'd almost forgotten about that,'' said Daniel Lowenstein, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. ``It never went anywhere.''

Though former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and legislators formed a 23-member California Constitution Revision Commission in 1993, the economy improved and the advisory panel's recommendations hit a partisan deadlock in the Legislature.

The ideas never made it to a statewide ballot - even the recommendation, now being offered as a supposedly new concept, which would allow lawmakers to pass the budget on a majority rather than two-thirds vote.

It wasn't until the economy soured again last year that Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and lawmakers began talking about a need for some of the same reforms suggested by the commission - comments echoed now by GOP Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But, even so, political analysts say California may, yet again, be unable to solve decades-old problems.

``A lot of good ideas are just not politically feasible and so you end up spinning your wheels coming up with great ideas that just don't have a chance,'' said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

For example, experts say, the constitutional revision commission recommended a ban on multi-year borrowing to finance an operational deficit - a tool embraced by Davis and apparently about to be employed by Schwarzenegger.

The mid-1990s commission, composed mostly of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, held 30 public hearings, 39 community forums and five workshops across the state over 18 months.

``During the course of our work, it became very clear that we needed to change the way state and local governments operate,'' commission chairman Bill Hauck said after the panel ended its work.

But he acknowledged that ``advocates for the status quo are more numerous and better organized than those who will support these needed changes.''

The commission, Hauck said, found that the ``state's population, with its varied public service needs, continues to grow while the resources needed to provide services do not grow as fast'' and that ``neither the voters nor state and local officeholders are anxious to raise taxes.''

``We must find ways to provide needed services with existing resources. This means government must operate more efficiently,'' Hauck said. ``The state's governmental system developed in the 19th century will not be adequate for the 21st century.''

The constitutional revision commission was most troubled by the public perception that taxes were not being used wisely and the belief there was too much state and local government - bloated by more than 7,000 separate units and more than 15,000 elected officials.

``California's state government structure is ... split up among a dozen directly elected (statewide) public officials with a mixture of authority and few direct lines of accountability,'' the report said. At the same time, it said, lawmakers' terms were too short and their sessions too long.

Even worse, the commission said, the power of both the executive and legislative branches was ``limited by the adoption of initiatives, which are often enacted in response to legislative inaction.''

``The initiative process, which was originally intended to break the grip of special interests on the legislative process, has been used in place of the Legislature for major public policy decisions,'' commissioners said.

The panel recommended, to improve accountability in state government, that:

- The governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket and work as a team. And that the superintendent of public instruction, treasurer, and insurance commissioner be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation, instead of being elected.

- Legislative terms of office be extended to three four-year terms, lawmakers' sessions be reduced from eight months to six months and legislators be given the power to veto administrative regulations.

- Constitutional amendments be placed on the November ballot to provide fuller public review, lawmakers be allowed to amend statutory initiatives after they have been in effect for six years and legislators be able to add technical and clarifying changes to initiatives that have qualified for the ballot.

To improve the budget process, the commission suggested:

- The governor and lawmakers be required to adopt long-term goals and approve a four-year capital outlay plan. Also, that the fiscal year be changed from one to two years and that midway through the fiscal period, necessary adjustments be made to revenue or spending.

- That the governor and Legislature forfeit their pay if the budget is not passed on time.

The commission also recommended a host of constitutional changes to improve education, to smooth relations between state and local governments and to strengthen local agencies. But despite the work that went into the suggestions, commissioners saw it had been for nothing. And sudden revisiting of many of the issues by officials now only makes the irony of it all that much more bitter for some of those involved.

``The experience was not a happy one,'' said Cain, an adviser to the effort.

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