By Rick Cole
Can California be fixed? Is our State government so wretchedly dysfunctional that nothing short of “radical surgery” can save it? Do we need a “top- to-bottom overhaul that connects political decision-making to (California’s) unique social and economic reality and creates cause-and-effect accountability for those we elect to office”? Are we saddled with “an archaic structure (that) does not and cannot reconcile the conflicting demands of a very large and very complex society”?
The one calling for sweeping away the current structure of California government isn’t some Ivory Tower intellectual, a Tea Party blogger or an Occupy Oakland activist. He’s the most visible and influential observer of California politics. In a time when new media have diminished the mystique of newspaper columnists, Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee column runs in more than 50 major papers statewide. His speeches and television soundbites amplify the power of his opinions.
After more than 35 years in the business, probably no one but Governor Brown knows more about the real world of California government. But that vantage point seems to render him increasingly grumpy, nostalgic and cynical. In part that’s generational — old timers usually prefer “the good old days.” Walters is hardly alone among middle-aged white males lamenting the fading of the California Dream. The Sixties in California were in some ways a kind of “golden age,” particularly for the Anglo middle class. California surpassed New York to become America’s most populous state. Our movies, music and aerospace industry set the pace for much of the “Free World.” A Democratic Governor named Pat Brown accomplished bold makeovers in water, education and transportation. A Republican Governor named Ronald Reagan emerged as the preeminent modern conservative on his way to dominate the national and global stage as President. Even our State Legislature was ranked by academics as the best in the nation.
Now, despite California’s continuing leadership in high tech and entertainment, no one cites California as a model of good governance. Instead, Dan Walters regularly flogs today’s politicians as craven tools of special interests who are “disconnected from reality.” Walters almost always describes California politics as “dysfunctional” and warns of looming catastrophes that he almost always thinks are being “ignored.”
None of this diminishes his still excellent nose for news or his prolific output of commentary. But it does color his increasingly predictable opinions. Which brings us to his latest broadside. Walters essentially dismisses Proposition 31, the “reform” package pushed not by a partisan faction or special interest group but California Forward (which Walters calls “a centrist amalgam of civic, political and cultural elites.”)
Walters gives short shrift to their sensible and overdue changes in how our state manages its finances. He argues they will simply be circumvented by future Governors and Legislatures. All for naught, he argues, absent the drastic remaking of the entire structure he advocates.
I sympathize with his complaints. But I question his solution. Is California’s government any more “archaic” than the one set up back in 1787 for the struggling United States? That too has lots of problems, but I don’t hear many voices calling for its total overhaul. There are a long line of critics who’ve dismissed incremental reforms like those in Proposition 31 because they aren’t “radical” enough. But I wonder: who in California has the wisdom and ability to propose and enact the needed radical overhaul? Elected delegates to a State Constitutional Convention? A political figure who gets elected Governor to push through dramatic changes in our State Constitution like Hiram Johnson did 100 years ago? A cranky newspaper columnist who will lay out the plan in several 600 word commentaries?
In his column on the futility of Proposition 31, Walters lays out his argument and his mantra: “California’s budget process is dysfunctional because its politics are dysfunctional. They are dysfunctional because an archaic structure does not and cannot reconcile the conflicting demands of a very large and very complex society.” Let’s reverse that proposition. Start with our “very large and very complex society.” How exactly do we all agree on a new modern structure that will reconcile our conflicting demands? And then how will we get it implemented despite a dysfunctional political environment?
I’m not a syndicated newspaper columnist. Instead, as a City Manager, I hope to share my perspective on the very practical challenges of improving local government in my own city of Ventura, sometimes in the context of larger statewide challenges. It’s not my role to analyze the pros and cons of Proposition 31 or to offer a prescription for overhauling State government. Still, I worry about a very sound principle articulated memorably by UCLA’s great coach John Wooden: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We can all agree that California needs fixing. Let’s not postpone overdue fiscal reforms until we can all agree on a sweeping overhaul of State government. Starting over again from scratch worked back in Philadelphia in 1787. What are the chances that such an effort would succeed in Sacramento? Or that it is likely to happen anytime soon?
Rick Cole is the City Manager of Ventura.