California Crackup Suggests Another Round Of Reform To Remake California’s Constitution

Loren Kaye
President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education

Editor’s Note: I asked both Loren Kaye and Cal State Sacramento professor and former legislative staffer, Tim Hodson, to review “California Crack-Up” by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in an attempt to get two perspectives of the book. Unfortunately, Tim disclosed recently that he is battling an illness. We want to take this opportunity to wish Tim and his family well. Loren’s review of California Crackup is below. JF

In California Crackup, Joe Mathews’ and Mark Paul’s provocative yet breezy prescription for what ails the Golden State, the authors exhaustively survey the history of governmental and political reform that has long defined the California polity.

They convincingly argue that five separate efforts over more than 150 years to make and remake the California Constitution "would prove no more successful than its predecessors."

Their solution: another round of reform to remake the California Constitution.

In the time-honored tradition of reformers, Mathews and Paul have rounded up the usual suspects for a ritual flogging. The suspect list is mostly – but not entirely – populated by liberal bugbears: Proposition 13, two-thirds vote requirement to increase spending, proliferation of ballot measures, corporate influence on campaigns and lobbying, and marginalization of the Legislature. But they also finger Proposition 98 as a major impediment to good government and are equal opportunity grouches toward any form of ballot box budgeting.

Their solutions are also conventionally – but not entirely – liberal and statist. They have no use and less patience for the supermajority requirements. (I was disappointed to read the vigor of this argument given Mathews’ clever though qualified nod toward a supermajority for increasing spending and cutting taxes.) They plea passionately to unwind the ballot box innovations from both left and right and return to a less cluttered Constitution that better reflects the state of nature during California’s mythical Golden Age. They claim that:

There are better ways. You need look no further than the U.S. Constitution. If you blink, you can miss its few scant provisions dealing with public finance…Operating within that spare framework, presidents and Congresses have managed for two centuries to make and change fiscal policy in accordance with voters’ wishes.

Now I don’t suggest fiddling with the U.S. Constitution, but do you really want to rely on a federal fisc with a $1.4 trillion deficit and a debt north of $13 trillion as the holy grail of responsible governance?

Their stock villain (cue the theme from "Jaws") is Proposition 13. Indeed, an abridged version of with their musings on the property tax behemoth would be a worthy platform for public debate and education. The authors launch a spicy new theory into Prop 13’s legend, which because of its novelty and relevance to today’s controversies deserves to be answered, if not buried.

Mathews and Paul suggest that the 1978 property tax initiative, which "unhinged California," may have been averted but for the supermajority requirement for spending bills. In fact, a simple majority process would have not have rescued the two attempts made on the final day of the 1977 legislative session. The first was so radical that the Senate, comprising 26 Democrats, could only muster 16 aye votes. In the waning hours of the session the measure was amended, eking out 21 votes, but losing the support of five Democrats, as well as liberal Republican stalwarts Peter Behr, Milton Marks and John Nejedly. Far from a solution, the second attempt was a mish-mosh of tax hikes and cuts, a limp fig leaf designed more for cover than relief that would have done little to stop the momentum of years of property tax malfeasance.

More curious is the authors’ implicit absolution of the Legislature as an institution for improvement in the body politic. In Crackup, the Legislature is relegated to a passive punching bag for the People’s mood swings. Somehow awful things keep happening to the Legislature – two-thirds vote for tax increases, ballot box budgeting, term limits, reapportionment – without their having any agency: "In part because they didn’t trust legislators, voters slowly took power away from lawmakers and required them to decide issues by supermajority consensus, or under laws imposed by initiative." Mathews and Paul call this a "cycle of contempt," but it could easily be a rational response from voters fed up with bribery scandals, interest group politics, fiscal irresponsibility, and the arrogance of petty officialdom.

For the wonkiest readers, Crackup provides a cogent exploration (relying in large part on Peter Schaafsma’s 1993 paper, Making Government Make Sense) of the dysfunctional state-local government relationship, and how a critical rethinking can pay large dividends in efficiencies and citizen satisfaction.  For the more adventurous, the boys take the top off the convertible for a wild spin through the byways of political reform. They offer numerous models for design of the Legislature and selection of its membership ranging from sober to Evel Knievel. Even their indictment of California’s venerable initiative process is more on the mark than off, although they exaggerate its reach and elide the most compelling point: that a measure proposing to significantly change California governance, budgeting, taxes or economic relationships is far more likely to fail than succeed. The voters like to vote, but not necessarily "aye."

Again in the fine tradition of political reformers, Mathews and Paul are sweeping in their vision and impatient to get on with it. To accomplish this, they need a partner for their clever device of a de Tocquevillian alien, who observes California from a distant remove: they also need a Caesarian alien, who can impose these reforms without the trouble of gaining political consensus in the current or foreseeable future.

There is a third way: small-scale, confidence-building reforms that renew public faith in institutions, and show our leaders a path toward true accomplishment. As an optimist, I believe there is a book for that, too.

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