It’s a lot easier to run California if you don’t actually have to run California. Just ask any of the think tanks mavens, good government groups and special interest sorts who typically have all the answers to the state’s problems.
Last month, for example, the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association, better known as SPUR, put out a special issue of their magazine devoted to the question of high-speed rail, which they favor.
When it came to the $68 billion question of how California can pay for the San Francisco to Anaheim rail line, they cited the usual sources: state bonds, private investment and a chunk of federal money.
But even if the federal government pulled all $38.3 billion of its proposed share, the authors of SPUR’s report say California can afford to build the system on its own, with the help of some simple financing:
First, boost the gas tax by 6 cents a gallon for 20 years. Then hike the vehicle license fee by $8.50 for 20 years. You also turn the six highways that parallel the railway as it enters the Bay Area and Southern California into toll roads at $4 a car, take $13 billion from the anticipated state cap-and-trade auctions, add in a $1 billion regional bond and collect revenue from the land around the stations and you are taking in $2.7 billion a year.
Over the 20 years of construction that’s enough to replace the federal funds, deal with the inevitable overruns and have money left over. Easy peasy.
Adds up great on paper, doesn’t it? Problem is, you can’t fix California’s problems on paper. Instead, they can only get solved in the give and take of partisan politics, which is often just a bit too grimy and, perhaps, realistic for many of the think tank sorts.
Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes in the state capitol knows that there’s a better chance of Arnold Schwarzenegger getting elected president than there is of convincing the Legislature to turn freeways into toll roads to pay for high-speed rail. Not to mention the gas tax and VLF hikes.
A lot of these intellectual solutions are prefaced with “Putting politics aside …” as if that was good thing or even possible. But too many groups that are pushing what they see as good government issues – campaign finance reform, single-payer health care, tax reform and plenty of others — can’t believe the state’s voters and politicians don’t see the absolute necessity of their plan and pass it by acclamation.
But reformers who don’t deal with the political realities of California are doomed to failure.
Back in 1994, California was facing one of its regular crises and Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature decided to shake up government by revising the state Constitution. “Be bold,” they urged the revision committee, and don’t be afraid to be controversial.
The committee took the words to heart and in two years came up with dozens of changes to reform state government. Which the Legislature, the crisis past, promptly ignored.
In too many cases, the commission left politics out of the picture, preferring what they saw as best to what was possible. To take one example, they proposed that the superintendent of public instruction, the state treasurer and the insurance commission be appointed by the governor, rather than elected, and that the Board of Equalization be abolished.
But not only do voters like the chance to pick the people who are going to run the state, but that would also be seven fewer elected offices available for politicians termed out of the Legislature. So no deal.
But there’s another way to handle reform, which brings us to Prop. 31 on the November ballot.
Pushed by the government reform group California Forward, the measure calls for a two-year state budget, limits runaway spending by the Legislature, gives the governor the power to make emergency spending cuts if the Legislature doesn’t act in a financial crisis, and shines a bit more light on those last-minute bills in the Legislature.
There’s not a lot new in the initiative, which includes elements reformers have wanted for years. As a matter of fact, the two-year budget was part of the 1996 Constitution revision plan that went nowhere.
It’s also no surprise that the California Democratic Party has come out against the measure, with the Republicans likely to follow suit. Neither side wants an outside group setting the rules of their game in Sacramento.
But the difference here is that when California Forward realized there wasn’t a chance of getting their plan through the Legislature, they went to the ballot.
Despite the many justified complaints about the misuse of the initiative process in California, issues like this, which can’t get a fair hearing in the Legislature, are why Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson championed the initiative in California more than 100 years ago.
While reformers might be out of touch, California voters generally aren’t. So it’s up to California Forward and its allies to make their case and let the people decide.
John Wildermuth is a long-time writer on California politics.