Sacramento’s Bucket List

Public Affairs Consultant specializing in Issue Advocacy and Strategic Communications

There are a lot of reasons why we as voters and taxpayers are subjected to the annual state budget stalemate. Like the sequels to the 1984 hit movie “Police Academy”, they are getting harder and harder to sit through.

Surely, term limits is a big part of the problem, and we have heard almost every argument in support of either extending term limits or eliminating them altogether. But there is a fresher argument against term limits that helps to reinforce the lack of accountability in the state legislature.

Let’s call it the “Bucket List” theory. Remember that Rob Reiner flick a couple years ago about two terminally ill men who escape from a cancer ward intent on living life to the fullest before they die? I never saw it, but I heard it was good from someone I don’t remember. Regardless, the analogy works in Sacramento, too.

Put yourself in a freshman lawmakers’ shoes. Similar to the situation in the “Bucket List”, you have less than six years to make your mark so that you can run for higher office (or get a great job in a lobbying firm—please keep me in mind!). Realizing that you probably are not going to be around very long to have to worry about long term fiscal problems, you decide that if you could only secure funding for a worthy program that reduces crime or improves education, you’ll have a legacy to run on for years to come.

But your colleagues also have less than six years to live, er, serve in the Legislature, and they have their own programs and legacies they want funded. In a Legislature as large as California’s, it’s too difficult for lawmakers to collectively prioritize the handful of issues they’re hoping to address. So, instead of prioritizing, you help your colleagues get their programs funded, and in turn, they’ll help you get your programs funded.

After a couple tries, you succeed in getting your program funded, the urban crime rate goes down (while the prison population increases costing taxpayers more money on incarceration and yoga for inmates), and you’re on your way to higher office along with your colleagues whose programs also cost money.

Toward the end of your tenure, the economy starts to slowdown, which most people will agree will reduce tax revenues. But that’s no longer your problem. Instead, it’s up to the newer legislators to figure out whether to cut spending or raise taxes–without cutting services. And we all know how well that works!

To be clear, there are many reasons why we have less-than-vigorous political discourse in Sacramento, including a lack of competitive districts, the high amount of money that goes into protecting incumbents, the two-thirds budget passage rule, extreme ideology, etc. All of these must be addressed.

Sadly, politicians are human. If your doctor gave you a few months to live, most of us would raid our savings and live large. Or, if you think you’re going to be laid off soon, wouldn’t you maximize your expense account on fancy hotels and front row tickets before it’s too late?

Yup, most of us would. It’s easy for us to say that we’d be different as legislators and only spend within our means, but not too many of them have been able to do that after taking office.

It is difficult to hold people accountable after they’re gone.

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