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5 Reasons Why Overreach Won’t Be a Problem

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

California’s political and media elites have discovered a new enemy against which they must fight, and its name is Overreach.

The specific concern is that Democrats, newly empowered by a supermajority and a winning vote on Prop 30, will go too far. Tax too much. Spend too much. And above all attempt to fix too much. And if they do too much, the voters will turn against them.

No one should worry about Overreach. Here are 5 reasons why.

5. Jerry Brown. If anything is clear about the governor, it’s his commitment to small ball – temporary taxes and limiting spending so that today’s austerity levels of public services are locked in. Prop 30’s victory seems to have ratified Brown’s commitment, and he isn’t about to drop it. (The political price he’ll pay for pursuing policies that won’t fix the budget or protect the schools is a bill that won’t come due for a while longer).

4. The initiative process. Democrats may have two-thirds, but they don’t have as much freedom as they’d like. The initiative process has been used to do so many things, that even a 2/3 supermajority isn’t enough to make changes. Laws enacted by initiative can’t be undone except by another initiative. And the politics of being in conflict with voters can seem scary.

3. Prop 30. Its victory locks the Democrats into policies on taxes, schools and realignment that can’t be easily redone, primarily politically but also in some cases as a policy matter. Fearless prediction: by March, you’ll see some Democrats making public expressions of regret about Prop 30.

2. The state constitution. This reason is a cousin of #4. The constitution already requires so much, that any big significant policy change threatens to require constitutional change. And you can only change the constitution with a vote of the people.

1. The elite and media optimism about California.

To read commentary in the nearly two weeks since the election, you’d think that California had turned some kind of corner. Everything is on its way to being repaired in California, at least if you buy the conventional wisdom. Redistricting and the top two have remade our elections supposedly in some positive way (that no one can explain now but that will somehow become evidence in future election cycles). Now the budget has been balanced, or nearly so, by Prop 30, and there is the possibility of surpluses. If we don’t do too much, California, and a rebounding economy, will fix most of the state’s big problems.

That at least is the emerging narrative. It’s utter nonsense, of course. But it’s sweet nonsense. And everybody is buying it.

And who, even those in a supermajority, wants to get in the way of a train moving in the right direction?

It’s too bad. The pessimism that Californians should have might spur them to take this opportunity for greater action. Instead, in the name of optimism, the state is likely to avoid overreach – and postpone the reckoning and remaking of its governing system that its future depends upon.

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