California Governor Jerry Brown outlined an increasingly optimistic view of California in his State of the State speech today (Wednesday). He spoke of an improving California economy; indeed, it does seem that California is on the mend. He also pointedly spoke to what our state government should be, for which he must be congratulated.
He emphasized that government must do what all of us have to do as citizens: be smart with our money, especially as the economy continues to improve. As California makes its way out of a five year period of dramatic retrenchment, the Governor says we must do two things.
First, we have to be prudent with the new revenues brought to the state by both the approval of Proposition 30 and the fiscal benefits of our growing economy. That means paying off our accumulated fiscal debt so that those resources will eventually be applied to budget priorities, and to begin the task of building reserves–you and I would call that saving money– so when the next economic downturn invariably comes, the state will have sufficient accumulated savings to avoid slashing education and vital health and social services upon which millions of Californians depend.
Second, Governor Brown reminds us of one large block in the foundation of California government: the people in our cities and towns. They are smart and can make informed decisions about how to best spend their money. Our prosperity was built on the actions of our community governments working to build strong futures for their residents. Over the last century, most of the infrastructure spending that built the 20th century economy was spent at the local level. Fiscal power that gravitated to the state over the last 30 years is an anomaly to our history and the results haven’t been pretty. The Governor has proposed that we return authority to the local level where the problems facing our communities can be best dealt with. This is particularly true in K-12 education where the state has continued to dictate the terms of decisions that should be made closest to the classroom. The criminal justice realignment project of 2011 is another example of that trend.
A long list of state boards and commission has considered both of these issues over the last 30 years. They include the California Constitution Revision Commission, the Little Hoover Commission and a series of other commissions, appointed by the several Assembly Speakers, dealing with both fiscal and and state-local relationship issues. Each suggested structural change would maintain fiscal discipline as well as move decision-making closer to the community level.
Although Governor Brown has set the right course for 2013, it will be important to make sure that structural changes are made so that future governors and legislatures have a new fiscal framework as well as a new balance in the distribution of power between our state and community governments.
Governor Brown has set an agenda for this work that is both smart and visionary. It is our job as civic-minded citizens to make these changes a permanent part of our governance and fiscal structure.
Bill Hauck is a member of the California Forward Leadership Council and a former Chair of the California Constitution Revision Commission.