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A top ten list of what ails California with which almost everyone agrees

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | October 19, 2009

What ails California? Let me count the ways:

1. A two-thirds voting requirement for new taxes and for budgets,

2. Legislative districts that are apportioned so that they’re either Democratic or Republican – resulting in the extremes running against more moderates in primaries, and summoning enough votes to get in,

3. Initiatives that, over the years, have mandated that certain items get funded regardless of other priorities,

4. A prison system that continues to grow, locking up ever more people at a cost of $45,000 each, even though many are non-violent offenders who are imprisoned because they’ve violated the law three times,

5. Public employee unions that demand and take an ever larger share of the public budget,

6. Term limits that ensure that no elected official has to live with the long-term consequences of his or her irresponsibility,

7. Proposition 13, which makes it impossible for locales to raise the property taxes they need without putting huge burdens on newcomers like me,

8. A tax system that’s regressive and becoming more so — depending too much on sales taxes, and thereby putting an impossible burden on the middle class,

9. An upper class and upper-middle class that’s seceded from public services (schools, parks, public transit) in favor of their own private services – and thereby withdrawn their support from the public sector,

10. Media that don’t report carefully and accurately on what’s happening in Sacramento.

I could go on, but you get the point.

But here’s the really interesting thing: Almost everyone agrees on these ten. They may have other candidates, of course, but these are the ten that keep coming up.

Yet almost no one agrees on which of the ten is the most troublesome, or the next most. Everyone has his or her own priorities for reform.

And no one knows how to start reforming the system, anyway. Cynicism abounds. The governing structure seems just too big, too far gone, too removed. If California were a small state with a strong tradition of paying attention to its government, or if it were a nation to itself, this probably wouldn’t happen. But it’s neither.

The immediate challenge is to overcome cynicism and convince enough people that enough can be done to reform the system that they should get involved in the effort.

Comments to “A top ten list of what ails California with which almost everyone agrees

  1. I would like to comment on # 5. “5. Public employee unions that demand and take an ever larger share of the public budget,” First of all, unions and the employer are governed by a set of binding rules which they use to negotiate salaries and benefits..Therefore, you are mistaken the unions do not take anything. Whatever the unions get is by mutual agreement or arbitration award.

  2. This is a great article Robert! And thanks for the initiative you made to come up with these top 10. I’m impressed!

  3. I remember when Prop 13 was passed–people like my parents and their contemporaries were being taxed so high that they almost could not afford to live in their homes. I now pay the property taxes on the home, which is now a rental. My own property taxes are about twice that and yet, whenever we pass anything the money never goes to where it is supposed to go.

  4. California’s issues have been hanging around for a while, and this list accurately addresses the most vocalized. Clear minds and revolutionary ideas will come together. However, recessions and natural disasters have a way of thinning the population. One way or another, changes will happen in California.

  5. Robert:

    What about all the illegal immigrants living in California? They are afraid to participate in daily public affairs. Why not either legalize their status or find some other way to help them get back to where they came from?

    There are far too many people in California who don’t consider themselves citizens of the state, and that has to change, one way or another.

  6. Wanda nails it! Overpopulation of poor combined with a welfare state leads to disaster.

    As to Prop 13 Proposition 13 putting huge burdens on newcomers like the author – is that entirely bad? California has enough people. Think about it.

  7. How about a Number 0: Overimmigration

    California continues to grow by over 400,000 persons a year. All of this from immigrants and their consequent offspring*. While academics would have you believe California growth is from “natural increase” (children born here magically are transformed into natives) the fact is California would not be growing like a Third World country but for immigration. It may be a generous impulse to be offering such a foreign aid program for the Third World – but it is not a roadmap to a sustainable future for the state and country. Until Washington ends this population tsunami (read this Bush/Obama, Pelosi, Boxer, Miller, Tauscher, Eschoo, Lee, Lofgren, etc. etc.) most of this discussion about the future of the state is so much blowing smoke.

    I am not hopeful. Those who attend services in the Church of Perpetual Growth are in the majority and academics are eager acolytes swinging their lamps of accomodationist thinking, for example, look at the laughable series Cal offered the community a few years ago about the future of the state:

    The point? California will continue to decline as the population grows. There is no way to provide the infrastructure, the water resources, the energy, the jobs, and above all educational resources in the face of runaway population growth.

    Is there hope nowhere? There was a flickering of some intelligent life at U.C. Santa Cruz where a banner was seen that read, “Immigrants or Redwoods.” Root causes my friends. Root causes.


    • With respect to “root causes” Wanda, we probably need to understand how US foreign policy and consumerism are at the root of why people immigrate to the US. Folks may be concerned about saving California’s beloved redwoods, but what about all the natural resources that have been pilfered abroad (and people that have suffered) to support our lifestyles.

  8. I agree with exactly half of your points. Specifically: #2, 5, 6, 8, and 10. But let’s not forget the lessons of history. If these problems just fell on our fair state from Mars (or Washington) we might be justified in simply sweeping them away. But I’ve lived in my house long enough to appreciate the benefit of Proposition 13 and I lived in California long enough to know and remember people who had to sell their homes because of escalating property taxes. And no, the state’s real estate market didn’t collapse as was predicted by Prop. 13 opponents – just the opposite.

    We got term limits because the same politicians that Gerrymandered the state’s electoral districts did such a good job they practically guaranteed themselves (and now their successors) jobs in perpetuity. Voters said: “enough!”

    But, more to the point, the state is in the fiscal predicament it is in largely because it has unwisely spent its current tax revenues in boom times to grow programs that cannot be sustained in economic downturns. It’s that simple. The Legislature could have used some of those monies to buy down debt and improve the state’s financial position but they opted to expand programs. Perhaps they did it out of inexperience but the end result is more people on the state’s payroll and voila: you have problem #5.

    Another ailment is governments that view themselves as enterprises that can raise prices without consequences. That’s at least in part how Prop 13 came about. So have you been following Oakland’s parking rate debate? I would sooner shop in Emeryville, with free parking, than collect more $55 tickets in Oakland. Net effect: Oakland’s businesses suffer and sales tax revenues drop. Rocket science? No.

    People go into government with the best of intentions but they too often forget those reasons too quickly.

    Eliminating Prop 13 would have the disastrous effect of forcing many people to sell their homes and, consequently, further depressing the housing market. Eliminating the 2/3’s majority requirement will, similarly, allow the all manner of taxing entities to raise rates and dampen the business environment of the state. Modifying (but not eliminating) term limits might be a good thing. Going to a part-time legislature might also be a good thing, by forcing the legislature to focus only the highest priorities for the State. Lastly, a civil tongue would contribute enormously to productive legislative efforts. The inflammatory rhetoric of many politicians and the media is counterproductive to good governance.

  9. I heartily agree with 9 of your 10 points. No. 5 troubles me, because if public employees had no effective unions they would not share in the public budget commensurate with their key importance for the state’s economy, current and future. As compared to the shares taken by well financed corporate and agricultural interests, those of public employees would shrink to subsistence. As you should know better than most people, public employment has produced the greatest share of job growth in California (and in the nation) for the past half century and more, especially in health care and education, as well as in the essential security and regulatory agencies. The prison unions may fit your point, except that their outsized strength reflects the brainless imprisonment policies to which you call attention. And, yes, I agree with you that the only solution lies with a better educated and motivated voting population, inspired by energetic and publicly motivated leaders. Somehow, just now that is not much to hope for.

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