By Lenny Mendonca & Tom McKernan.
As the mid-term elections approach, political forecasters are pondering just how much tighter the gridlock can get in Washington, D.C.
On the opposite coast, the ballot in California includes two significant measures — dealing with fiscal management and water management — that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a once-stalemated Legislature.
As Congress broke for the campaign season, the pundits debated whether the 113th was less productive than the “Do Nothing Congress” of 1947–48.
When the California Legislature hit the campaign trail, the normally cynical press corps had to concede the session was one of the most productive and bipartisan in a generation.
Eight years ago the popular prognosis was California would be the first “failed state.” California now has an improved credit rating, a budget reserve, and an economy outperforming the nation in job creation.
None of this is an accident.
For nearly a decade, Californians have diagnosed the state’s ills, and possible remedies. Foundations made sustained commitments to bipartisan policy and outreach efforts. Civic organizations formed coalitions to inform and advocate for elements of a comprehensive solution.
In successive elections, voters approved constitutional initiatives that gave citizens the duty to redraw legislative and congressional districts, opened primary elections to all voters, and modified what were the strictest term limits in the nation. Voters made it easier for the Legislature to pass a budget, but harder to raise hidden fees — and then approved a temporary tax increase.
These reforms changed the calculus of campaigns and the chemistry in the capitol.
Political analysts are crunching data to quantify the new behavior. But the perception (which is reality) among lawmakers — especially those who just completed their first term under all of the new rules — is that the best way to keep their jobs is to build bipartisan relationships and solve problems.
When California was the poster boy for government failure (literally, the Economist put a surfer dude with a warped long board on its cover), the state’s initiative process was blamed for much of the dysfunction. Too much democracy, critics asserted, fueled populace laws making it hard to govern.
But most of the recent reforms could never have been approved by a polarized Legislature and were only possible through initiatives. And, poetically, this year the Legislature with bipartisan support enacted improvements to the initiative process that were developed by a coalition of interests. The changes encourage public review of proposals and legislative resolution of issues, and make it easier for voters to understand the measures and the money behind them.
This is not a declaration of victory. Partisanship isn’t dead. Campaign donors still pull too many strings. And while other reforms have made it easier to register and vote, Californians still need to be persuaded it is worth their time to vote.
Part of the value equation is the quality of choices on the ballot, and the November ballot in California is full of choices that were not there eight years ago.
Of the 100 legislative seats on the ballot, 18 races have candidates of the same party. Of the 53 congressional races, seven have candidates of the same party. Without open primaries, all of those races would have been settled in the June primary and the easiest path to victory would have been to appeal to the party base and demonize the opposition.
In some of those races, the ideological purity of the incumbent is the issue, and a liability. And in the other races, the open primary encouraged candidates to appeal to all voters regardless of their party.
Two candidates for Secretary of State — a Democrat and a Republican – are debating how to empower and engage all voters. Two candidates for state Controller – a Democrat and a Republican – are debating how to increase transparency on public spending. And two candidates for Superintendent for Public Instruction – a Democrat and a Democrat — are debating how to best improve the quality of teaching to improve student success.
California has a long way to go to be best in class in voter empowerment, fiscal management and school performance. But those metrics are all headed in the right direction.
The two legislative proposals on the ballot also are evidence of change. One measure — backed by a unanimous Legislature — would establish new reserve requirements to end the state’s disastrous boom and budget spending habits. Another measure, passed with only two “no” votes, reflects broad agreement on how to invest in a sustainable water system. You may have to spend a summer in the West to appreciate the significance of any agreement on water.
As frustration ferments into despair in D.C., keep an eye on California – where the New-New Federalism is being written from Google Earth’s Streetview.
In California, local governments have been challenged to deliver better results. Regional coalitions are seizing their own economic destinies to move the needle on income disparity. California’s tech firms are crafting ways for open data to transform the public sector — exposing high costs and low performance, empowering the innovators within government and enabling everyone to be civic entrepreneurs.
The new role for the state — and D.C. should note — is to accelerate learning among the leaders and build capacity among the laggards. Uniformity and compliance need to be overwritten with innovation and excellence.
In economics and physics, politics and sports, momentum can be determinant. By citizens working to improve governance, the expectation and the hope in California has been that government will be a better partner with communities and regions to close the education and employment gaps.
Sometimes democracy is part of the problem, but California is proving that it is always part of the solution.
Lenny Mendonca and Tom McKernan serve as Co-Chairs of California Forward’s Leadership Council.