The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

Dan Walters: California's crisis of governance undermines democratic theory

July 06, 2004

Sacramento Bee

By Dan Walters -- Bee Columnist - (Published July 4, 2004)

California, says William Hauck, has "a 19th-century structure of government trying to work in the 21st century."

Hauck is in a unique position to make that observation because he's been a fixture in and around the Capitol for decades, most recently as head of the California Business Roundtable. Thus, he has had a front-row seat to the disconnection between a fast-growing, fast-changing California and a governmental structure that has fundamentally not changed since the state was founded, except to add additional layers that often work at cross-purposes and blur lines of accountability. California suffers from a crisis of governance so severe that it undermines the democratic theory that lies beneath the Declaration of Independence.

The three-branch system that California adapted from the federal government worked fairly well for the state's first century, and a bit beyond, but during the latter years of the 20th century, it bumped into a unique set of social and economic circumstances and began to break down. The system is essentially a negative one, making policy change difficult, and works fairly well when there is a broad civic consensus, but when that consensus evaporates, as it has in California due to deep-seated socioeconomic change, the checks and balances become seemingly insurmountable hurdles. As the governor and the Legislature spun their wheels during the last quarter-century, incapable of moving in any policy direction, those who promulgate ballot measures became the chief drivers of policy change.

Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor on a pledge to make government work again, but he also quickly learned that his most effective tool, ironically enough, is the threat to take issues to the ballot should legislators fail to respond.

One of Schwarzenegger's campaign pledges was to conduct a top-to-bottom review of state government, look for "waste, fraud and abuse," and streamline agencies and programs to save money and make them more efficient and accountable. He designated several hundred state employees as the California Performance Review, which has prepared a long report on how to fulfill Schwarzenegger's promise to "blow up boxes" on the governmental organization chart.

The report is being kept under wraps until after the state budget is settled.

"We don't want people playing politics with it," says Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.

But last week, the governor named a 21-member Performance Review Commission that is to conduct public hearings on the report and then, presumably, help shape a reorganization proposal that will be submitted to the Legislature. Hauck is serving as co-chairman of the commission, dominated by business people and graduates of the Pete Wilson administration.

California desperately needs a governmental overhaul to bring it into at least partial alignment with 21st-century realities, but the course chosen by Schwarzenegger is, sad to say, not likely to produce it. He could, if the Legislature agrees, make some marginal improvements - eliminating overlapping duties in state agencies, perhaps - but those with vested interests in preserving the status quo will resist even the mildest of structural reforms.

California needs a broader and bolder approach, perhaps even a new constitutional revision commission. Most of all, it needs leadership to marshal public support for something that is lacking in political sex appeal.

It's doubtful whether Schwarzenegger, for all of his explosive rhetoric, really has the inclination to fight that kind of battle, as his commission appointees imply. While well-meaning, they are not revolutionary sorts who would want to take on such hot-button issues as folding cities and counties into multipurpose regional governments, getting rid of thousands of single-purpose special districts or straightening out a nonsensical tax system.

There's nothing wrong per se with making incremental improvements. It's better than doing nothing. But there's nothing incremental about the population growth and economic and social evolution now under way in California. Unless there's a deeper overhaul of antiquated, unresponsive governmental structures, the crisis of governance will surely worsen.

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