“Anything you have that’s not nailed down belongs to the state. Anything the state can pry up isn’t nailed down.” – Speaker at CSAC Annual Conference, 2009

Supervisors attending the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) annual conference were discouraged about the economy and the 2009 state budget process – justifiably so.

Local revenues were subsequently seized by the state to fill their more than $40 billion revenue shortfall and counties and other local governments were forced to cut services significantly to live within our means.

Well, it ain’t over – next year promises to be worse.

Not surprisingly, supervisors at CSAC this year spoke with new undertones: no longer merely discouraged, we’re angry and frustrated.

Speaker after speaker in Monterey referred to new and intensified challenges ahead. They noted that the national and state economies are not rebounding and a new wave of foreclosures is looming. Joblessness isn’t decreasing. Many businesses are downsizing or closing. Tax revenues are off. New regulatory mandates with big price tags are on the horizon.

Given voters’ resounding refusal last May to approve new taxes even for a limited time period, it’s clear no help should be expected from that quarter.

To top it off, the Legislative Analyst’s Office warned supervisors that the state’s potential revenue shortfall is already $21 billion, several weeks ago the Legislature approved an $11 billion water bond to be considered by voters next year, and the state’s finance director reportedly considered bankruptcy and renouncing statehood to become a federal territory.

Excuse me? What are they thinking in Sacramento?

Meanwhile, the rapacious appetite of the state to maintain itself means it will continue trying to get a greater amount of local revenues and will continue kicking additional funding mandates down to counties. Apparently, discretionary services ranked as top priorities by county constituents – roads, police, and fire services – be damned. Corrections, Health and Human Services, requirements to comply with regulations and other mandates will increasingly consume local discretionary funds.

Something has got to change.

Change is critical, but supervisors weren’t convinced meaningful reform can be achieved via a series of voter initiatives currently proposed without consolidating and simplifying them. A significant number of initiatives are being championed by multiple organizations. If most or even half qualify for the ballot, it is feared that the sheer number could overwhelm voters and lead to knee-jerk no votes. Supervisors heard from three organizations promoting legislative and state reforms, but held off on endorsing any for now.

There likely weren’t more than a few supporters for current Senate and Assembly Select Committee efforts to create broad and specific systemic reform. Whispered comments referred to foxes, hen houses and treachery.

Supervisors did support three CSAC principles for reform, however. The principles are meant to assist Boards and CSAC committees in evaluating the proposed initiatives. The principles assert that reforms should:

  1. Align responsibility with authority among state and local governments (transparency, adequate funding from state or the adjustment of statutory requirements, ensure future program realignments are supported by new, stable, and adequate revenue sources, provide maximum program flexibility, reduce the threshold for raising local revenues to less than 2/3 – this was controversial but was ultimately included, pay mandates timely and streamline process, revisit the state’s tax and fee structure, and allocate funds based on program responsibilities);
  2. Result in responsible and transparent decisions in state government (enhance legislative oversight of programs services, and fiscal choices, require thorough fiscal review of legislative measures including all costs to local government before approval, and establish open, public process for legislative and budget matters); and
  3. Reestablish accountability and responsibility between California residents and their elected leaders (expand planning and decision-making horizon for fiscal choices, require initiatives and legislative measures to have a sufficient, indentified funding source, and adjust legislative term limits).

Reform must be achieved and the sooner the better. The state’s actions indicate that legislators, the administration, and bureaucrats believe that anything that belongs to local government belongs to the state. That’s just wrong.

It’s significant that Monterey was where California began and Monterey is where CSAC met this year. This year, it’s where CSAC resolved as a group to fix what’s broken. To say supervisors are ready for a revolution is an overstatement, but as a group we’re increasingly angry, frustrated, and ready to push back.