The Budget and the Ballot
What went wrong, and how to fix it.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
When voters cast their ballots on May 19, they weren’t just saying “no” to the propositions; they were saying “no” to the Sacramento status quo. Can we really expect voters to support propositions put on the ballot by people they don’t trust? Defined by all-night sessions, gridlock and outlandish partisan bickering, is it any surprise that Sacramento has become fodder for late-night comedians and political pundits on 24-hour news channels?
But the stark reality of our budget crisis is no laughing matter. Years of gluttonous spending have taken their toll. The voters demanded we go on a crash diet; that we in Sacramento behave like the rest of this state and live within our means. While on paper that seems simple enough, the reality of a combined $39 billion in cuts to state programs will have a real and lasting impact on California.
This election proved two things: first, no one likes or trusts the Legislature. Nearly three out of four voters supported Proposition 1F, the so-called “stick it to the Legislature” measure that prohibits legislative pay raises in deficit years; second, it is clear that Sacramento is wholly out of touch with the people we’re elected to represent. There is a tangible disconnect, and we must address this failure of government if we are ever going to be able to govern.
California is broken. We are ungovernable and headed on a path of self-destruction. If we don’t fix our state, we are doomed to remain on this path and continue the boom-bust cycle. This is a systemic problem that can only be cured by systemic reform. Piecemeal, symbolic and arbitrary attempts will no longer cut it. We cannot afford to act incrementally.
But long-term systemic reforms can only be implemented once we address our short-term problem – we’re out of money. We can’t look toward the future until we fix the present.
Like everyone else in this state, we’re going to have to make a dollar go a bit further. But after our multi-year spending binge, the impending intervention is going to be quite painful. We will cut bureaucracy and lay off countless state workers. We will cut education and thousands of teachers will get pink slips. For a state already grappling with one of the highest unemployment rates, these actions will be devastating. We will cut health programs, and increase the burden for those relying on these services. We will cut public safety, and inmates will be released early and unsupervised. These are no longer threats or hypotheticals; this is reality.
We are on a dangerous path. Without real reform, this won’t be the last time we eviscerate state programs just to make ends meet. We can rise up from the ashes of this economic crisis; we can be the eternal phoenix, but only if we reform ourselves.
We will take our first step on the road to recovery next year when Assembly and Senate districts are re-drawn. Finally, these districts will be drawn by an independent third party, not the Legislature. For years, politicians in Sacramento drew arbitrary district lines that created safe seats for each political party. The re-election process is a joke in this state. Once you’ve won a seat, unless you’re incarcerated, you’re going to keep that seat until you’re termed out. Taking politics out of this process and making seats competitive will bring accountability and democracy back.
However, there is no panacea. While redistricting reform will help, it’s just the first step.
We need to change the way we elect our representatives. We need a system that rewards legislators who vote their districts and aren’t held hostage by unelected party leaders and special interest groups. Independent thinking should be rewarded, not punished.
We need a real spending cap and rainy day fund – one with no strings attached. California operates on commission. When we sell a lot, we have plenty of money and we splurge. When sales slow down, so does our revenue stream. We have to put California on a salary, spend responsibly and put money away for the slow downs. This budget binging and purging simply won’t do.
We need to stop passing bills and budgets that aren’t even written. We frequently vote on budgets in “draft form,” meaning the language has not been finished. How can we claim to represent the opinions of constituents if we vote on something they’ve never had a chance to give their opinion on?
These reforms bring substantial benefits. We will have a stabilized and functional government. Roads can be improved. Much-needed health care reform can be a reality. Education will be fully funded. Teachers won’t be worrying about pink slips. Cities, counties that rely on the state for funding will have peace of mind knowing their money is coming. California will be the Golden State once more.