California fiscal crisis spurs push for reform

By Dan Walters
Published November 30th 2008 in Sacramento Bee
If there is a silver lining in California's prolonged budget crisis, it's a new awareness that it reflects a broader civic malaise.

California is functionally ungovernable. Our hyper-democracy has become,  effectively, anti-democratic, thwarting the will of the majority in the pursuit of perfect process and exquisite equity. And the result is an
ever-lengthening list of unresolved, but critical, issues ­ not only the  deficit-riddled state budget, but water, education reform, health care, housing and many others.

California does not have a strong civic leadership cadre. Its physical size, lack of statewide media, cultural complexity and decentralized economy have undermined what was once a powerful, if sometimes
self-serving, power structure that drove the state's public policy in much of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, a civic movement to overhaul California's dysfunctional government is gathering strength, although there's no consensus yet on whether it should be a radical restructuring or incremental change.

The latter approach, at least so far, is embodied by California Forward, a bipartisan organization that has substantial support from several major foundations, has backed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful
effort to reform legislative redistricting, and probably will support additional incremental steps, such as proposing an open legislative primary system to voters in 2010.

There are others, however, who see incrementalism as falling short while dissipating reformist energy that could be directed toward more fundamental change. Such groups as the New America Foundation's
California branch and the Bay Area Council, a consortium of corporate executives, are more aggressive than California Forward.

The former staged a recent conference to explore structural changes in governance. They heard Sunne McPeak, a former head of the Bay Area Council and a one-time Schwarzenegger Cabinet member, say, "It is time for the revolution in every dimension." The Bay Area Council, meanwhile, has called for the first constitutional convention since 1878 to consider a radical restructuring.

What kind of restructuring? It could conceivably go as far as casting out the federalist system (separate and equal executive, legislative and judicial branches) and embracing the parliamentary form used in many other democracies, such as Great Britain, in which the head of government would reflect the legislative majority.

New America Foundation is floating a step in that direction ­ a one-house, 360-seat Legislature whose members would be elected from eight geographic regions, half by districts and half at-large, the latter allocated by parties' vote share, known as proportional representation. It would give minor parties a way to gain seats.

Whatever we do, if we do anything, it should vigorously attack an outdated system that is not only unworkable, but perfect for evading accountability for failure.