With the state taking local government revenue to balance its budget, the door flew open for California Forward’s plan to re-energize local governments. The organization, funded by major foundations to produce solutions to California’s governance problems, will soon present ideas to devolve power and responsibility to the locals. Regardless if the local governments are successful with a lawsuit to return the funds, the time is ripe for the devolution plan to go forward said Bob Hertzberg, the former Assembly Speaker and co-chair of California Forward.
And, he believes because of the budget deal, which will put the squeeze on local governments, voters will be paying attention.
I caught up to the peripatetic Hertzberg on a plane ready to fly between Washington, DC and New York but his focus, as usual, was on California.
Devolving power and financial responsibility to local governments is the right way to bring government closer to the people, he argued. Voters don’t want “to send tax dollars to Sacramento, Washington or the moon” because they don’t know how its being used. Hertzberg is convinced the voters will be more comfortable working with local leaders given the low esteem in which the legislature is held and the high regard for local government officials.
The plan’s basic idea is for the local government to “own” their own resources so that local officials can manage the demands of constituents and borrow against revenue streams if needed. They don’t have to worry if the revenues will be taken away one year by the state or additional monies added the next year.
While Hertzberg and California Forward have spoken in broad terms about the devolution idea, the specific suggestions will be rolled out soon. Hertzberg believes both Democrats and Republicans will view favorably the decentralization of government. Democrats will support spending locally where they can see results, Hertzberg argued, while Republicans will be more in control of resources and monitor government efficiencies.
Overall, bringing power closer to the people will be better for democracy, he said.
Hertzberg also sees agreement from all sides on government offering incentives to improve the economy. With a strong economy money will be there to deal with local concerns.
But taking power and, perhaps, resources away from Sacramento may run into the old turf war that upsets many dreams of reform. Why would Sacramento politicians support a plan to empower local governments at the expense of centralized state power?
Hertzberg is confident the cards are in place for legislators to endorse the California Forward concept.
Hertzberg reasons that the Democrats who control the state legislature understand it is almost impossible to raise taxes on the state level. People don’t want to send their money far away. He acknowledged that the old Democratic ethnic coalitions often turned to Sacramento in the past for help. Now, however, the former speaker contends that there is more diversity within local governments to speak directly to these coalitions and their concerns. Hertzberg believes local leaders are frustrated that they cannot respond to their constituents and anticipates that pressure from these local leaders and constituents will move legislators to support devolution.
However, if the legislature doesn’t act, Hertzberg expects to take the proposed changes to the ballot through the initiative process. He believes the discussion about a possible constitutional convention only will help move the California Forward plan ahead.
The system is in “deep and utter failure” and needs triage, he said. Discussion of a constitutional convention only highlights the problems.
Hertzberg is eager to act right away and not wait for a convention or the 2010 general election that will bring a new governor and reshuffled legislature to Sacramento.
“The time is now. Money can move quickly. Flip of a switch and its moves. If we don’t reform now California could become the next Detroit.”
Will this type of restructuring work? Hertzberg makes some compelling arguments. As always the details will bring objections from one group or another. The question of how taxes will be handled by an empowered local government will be a potential lightening rod.
As many reform ideas move ahead, returning power to local government should gain plenty of attention.
Joel Fox is the Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee.