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What ails California?

Daylong conference finds plenty of symptoms, a few likely causes and little agreement on how to regain the Golden State's glow

| 27 October 2009

For an academic conference, "What Ails California?" at times bore an odd resemblance to an episode of House, as teams of crack diagnosticians focused all their critical faculties on the plague of debt, dysfunction, and depression afflicting the once-golden state.

Unlike the TV hospital drama, though, the daylong gathering of profs and pols in Barrows Hall failed to produce that familiar "aha" moment, whereupon the disease is named, the cure prescribed, and the patient mended. Far from a happy pill, in fact, Friday's 13th annual Travers Conference on Ethics and Accountability co-sponsored by Berkeley's political-science department and its Institute of Governmental Studies delivered a sobering dose of reality: California, it seems, is in for a lengthy stay in the intensive-care unit.

"The purpose of this panel is to extinguish all further hope," joked Steve Weiner, co-founder of Common Sense California, by way of introducing the day's first group of experts. Barely an hour earlier, the conference had heard brief opening remarks from Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who called for "a reversal of state disinvestment" in higher education that has left the UC system reeling. "We're progressively devolving," Birgeneau said, "from a state-supported, to a state-assisted, to a state-located university."

But if any listeners were still willing to bet on a turnaround in Sacramento, their numbers may have shrunk during the presentation by Berkeley political scientist and IGS director Jack Citrin, who cited extensive polling data he said demonstrates "a deep-seated popular mistrust" of the political establishment, a powerful appetite for change in the ways California deals with its daunting fiscal challenges and limited consensus on proposed reforms of everything from term limits to super-majority rule to the state's bloated, constantly morphing constitution.

And so it went. As the day progressed, many of the traits Citrin identified in the electorate found expression on the small stage of the Lipman Room, as a parade of scholars, political analysts, and practitioners past and present grappled with what Berkeley's state senator, Democrat Loni Hancock who sat quietly as fellow panelists bemoaned the decline in quality of Sacramento legislators termed California's "free fall."

The state exhibits a "deep political schizophrenia," declared veteran California journalist Mark Paul, now a senior scholar at the New America Foundation. That was a diagnosis shared by a number of other conference participants, several of whom noted the voters' habit of tying legislators' hands via the initiative process while reviling those same legislators for inaction and ineffectiveness.

"What California suffers from is a combination of too much democracy and too little democracy," concurred author Peter Schrag, the editorial-page editor of the Sacramento Bee from the mid-1970s through the mid-'90s. "We do have two electorates," he added. Yet despite voter complaints about Sacramento, "the electorate doesn't really mind a non-functioning legislature."

For those in search of consensus, one underlying cause of legislative paralysis came up again and again over the course of the day.

"This has turned out to be the term-limits-reform launch party," observed Thad Kousser, who earned his doctorate at Berkeley and is now an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego.

In a conversation moderated by longtime political reporter Susan Rasky of the Graduate School of Journalism, two Sacramento veterans Jim Brulte, who led Republicans in both houses of the state Legislature, and Democrat and Berkeley alum Bill Lockyer, a one-time president pro tem of the state Senate and currently state treasurer agreed that what the Legislature needs, among other things, is more Sacramento veterans.

Both men bemoaned the relative inexperience of today's legislators restricted, under a voter-approved initiative, to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate and commiserated over what Brulte dubbed "a horrible paradigm" in which lawmakers need special interests more than special interests need them.

"Term limits means legislators can't say no," he said. "We have created a structure of dysfunction."

The thought was seconded and then some by Bill Bagley, another Berkeley alum and a former UC regent who served in the Assembly as a moderate Republican in the '80s and '90s, when he said "there were no aisles" separating the two parties. "We compromised."

Today, Bagley said, state legislators are far more apt to "vote by rote," any desire to make policy trumped by the need to follow the dictates of their political caucuses. And partisan divisions have combined with term limits to erode the collegiality legislators once enjoyed.

Of the 120 members of the Legislature, Bagley reckoned, "at least 20 are dopes, crooks, and drunks." And while that may have been just as true during his era, he allowed, "we knew who they were, and we treated them accordingly."

As Citrin showed, however, a majority of California voters believe term limits have helped, not harmed, the state's ability to govern itself. Nor are they any more disposed to most other proposed reforms. According to recent polls, the state's electorate while disapproving of the Legislature, and believing the state is on the "wrong track" retains a strong anti-tax sentiment, leaning toward cutting spending and inefficiency as the means to balance the budget.

Most suggested reforms to Proposition 13 are even more unpopular. An October 2009 Field Poll found that 52 percent of the voters oppose changing the requirement for a two-thirds legislative majority to pass a budget, and even more oppose the idea of enacting tax increases with a simple-majority vote. Most voters polled also said they don't want to amend Prop. 13 to tax commercial property at a higher rate than residential property, one suggestion for increasing state revenues during economic slowdowns.

Voters do, however, voice support for a constitutional convention to deal with budget issues, though many would like to see illegal immigration discussed in such a forum. Whether a constitutional convention can "solve California's problems" or open the door to further mischief was the subject of the day's final panel discussion.

To Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior policy fellow at USC and a much-televised political analyst, the prospect of a convention called to mind a military term popularized by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. "It starts with the word 'cluster' fill in the blank," she said. To anyone who thinks a convention could be legally restricted to narrowly drawn budget questions, she added, "I have three words for you: Town hall meeting."

Californians "seem to be more angry than they are motivated to change things," Jeffe said, arguing that the answers to what ails the state lie less with "mechanical solutions" than with better communication, education, and leadership.

Asked by a member of the audience how she would achieve such reforms, though, Jeffe seemed to speak for many in the room, irrespective of party or ideological leanings.

"I wish I knew," she replied.