Reforming State Government: From Diagnosis to Cure

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Ph.D., is retired Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and co-creator of the podcast Inside Golden State Politics

One particular paragraph in the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, jumped out at me; although
it deals with the U.S. Senate, it bears directly
on what Californians are mulling over these days.

Kennedy wrote, "I think of the withering away of collegiality and sense
of collective mission as the corruption of the Senate.  I don’t mean corruption in a legal
sense; rather I mean corruption in the sense that things are broken."

Kennedy argued that the "breakdown
has been driven primarily by two factors." First," there are forces that
actually do not want the Senate to meet and be active in the affairs of the
nation…second is the distorted influence of money and the power of vested
interests in the legislative process."

Kennedy’s observation got
me thinking about the question: "How can we move toward solutions to
California’s own broken system?"
First of
all, reformers have got to look beyond
governmental institutions; they’ve got to stop focusing on-and limiting change
to–mechanical
solutions.

There’s no magic in
campaign financing reform. It hasn’t cleaned out the stables yet. The late
California Democratic fund-raiser, Dwayne Garrett, observed that "political
money is like water running downhill. It will find its way around any obstacle
to get to the bottom."

There is no magic in a one-house legislature. I’ve watched Nebraska for
decades-a unicameral doesn’t equal harmony. Factions erupt-and stall
legislation–even in so-called non-partisan bodies.

There’s no
magic in a part-time legislature. For those who argue that Californians who
have to draw a salary elsewhere make better legislators, I have just one word,
"Bribery." Now that’s a nice supplemental paycheck! Remember the late lobbyist
and self-styled "Governor of the Legislature, Artie Samish.

Proponents
argue that the part-time legislature would return professional lawmakers to the
status of "citizen-legislators." California’s draconian term-limits were
supposed to do that.  Instead, they’ve revved up a perpetual game of
musical chairs among professional politicians.

There’s no
assurance that a part-time, "citizen legislature" would be more reflective
of-or responsive to–the state’s diverse population.

Pre-Prop. 1A-which established the full-time legislature, the State Capitol was
heavily populated by lawyers and others whose occupations were flexible
enough-or their bank accounts fat enough–to allow them to take months off from
their "real jobs."

Even if
California succeeds in establishing a part-time legislature, it will NOT
succeed in abolishing the full-time body. We could return to serial special
sessions (Oh, wait! We’re already there!)

          That’s the
way things worked before the late Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, as part of a
major constitutional revision in 1966, pushed for a full-time legislature, as
recognition that a part-time body no longer actually existed. What Prop. 1A
did, Unruh argued, was merely institutionalize an already de facto full-time body.

The initiative
process clearly needs reform. But again, I’m convinced its real problems are not
simply mechanical.
I don’t
think abolition of the initiative is politically realistic; it’s been part of
the ethos of California for too long. And polls show that Californians like it.

Real initiative
reform requires that Californians understand that there’s no such thing as a free
lunch
. You can’t decide to micromanage government and then expect
elected officials to be accountable for cleaning up afterwards.

Then, there’s that
mystical silver bullet, the Constitutional Convention. For those who insist the
ConCon’s agenda can, legally, be
limited to narrowly drawn topics, I have three words: "Town Hall meetings."
Just try to control the agenda-limit the debate–for activists with other ideas.

It is folly
to rely merely on systemic reform, on
tweaking the mechanics of governance.
I have always believed-and will continue to believe-that any system is only as good as the people who inhabit it.

And that leads me
to my response to our question: "How can we move toward solutions?"
Three factors are crucial: communication; its close cousin, education;
and leadership.

       
I’m talking about honest communication
by politicians to Californians-and by voters to elected officials, about the
mess we’re in and what we have to consider to get out of it. Just spell things
out without the spin and vitriol. (But that requires mutual trust, doesn’t it?)

And I’m talking about any
communication at all on the part of a
media fixated on the circus of politics to the exclusion of the substance of
policy.
Of course, that assumes you can find
any so-called mainstream media left that
can-or want to-cover state government and politics.

Attitude-be it on the 24/7 cable nets, talk radio, blogs, Facebook,
Twitter, in Congress or whatever-is everything. (These days we tend to listen
to only what we want to hear, not
what we "should" hear.)

Concerning
education, it was the philosopher John Locke who complained that we teach
children how to be carpenters or farmers-or any other trade-but we do not teach
them how to be citizens. Indeed, in these days of dwindling educational
resources and overburdened schools, it’s hard enough to teach–period!

Perhaps the
hardest reform engine to come by-let alone define, is leadership. The only way
I can define it is: I know it when I
see it. And I don’t see it now.

Will there ever be
the political will–the political courage–to face our state’s crumbling
physical, political, social, cultural and economic infrastructures and make the
hard choices-and nurture the compromises (whatever they may ultimately be)
necessary to govern?

This whole reform
thing is not going to be easy; it’s
neither simple nor painless, and Californians shouldn’t be conned into
believing that it will be.   That’s how voter distrust,
cynicism and alienation take root.

The blue smoke and
mirrors that have defined politics and government for so long are as responsible
for the dysfunctional funk CA is in, as are our tanking economy, the on-going
partisan gridlock, or the deep-seated voter distrust of government and
politicians.

I’m not
really sure how or whether we can move toward solutions to what ails
California (anyway, first we have to agree on what does ail California), but we all-politicians,
community leaders, media, academicians, citizens, activists, voters, Californians, everybody who cares about
this state-have got to stop diddling
around; take a deep breath, survey the terrain, put one foot in front of the
other, and get on with it!

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