Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Schwarzenegger's Propositions Go Down In Flames. Now What?

In 2005, California voters overwhelmingly rejected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to impose caps and limits on health care, schools, higher education, and other vital services that we depend on every day.

Yesterday, it was deja vu all over again. And then some.

Not only did Schwarzenegger and the Republican legislature get their heads handed to them over the spending cap, they also lost on four other initiatives that were meant to bribe teacher's unions for their silence, mortgage the State Lottery at usury rates, and raid the funds of popular and effective programs for preschool children and the mentally ill.

Only proposition 1F, which would freeze the wages of Legislators when California is in deficit, passed.

Sacramento, are you listening? And if so, what will you hear?

"These measures will end up being a $25 million Rorschach test," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, referring to the psychological ink-blot analysis. "Everybody will end up seeing in the results what they want to."

The Republican noise machine is trying to spin this election as fast as they can as an anti-tax, anti-government referendum. And undoubtedly, for Republican voters who turned out yesterday, this is largely true. But what about the millions of Democratic and Independent voters who turned out?

If the 2005 special election is any indication, the messages is pretty clear: stop trying to put a cap our state's future and stop trying to cut or raid services we all depend on, especially in a Recession.

But frankly, this election also speaks to a larger problem. For a variety of reasons our state has become ungovernable.

We have a Democratically controlled legislature that's held hostage by only a few rogue Republican's empowered by the fact it takes a 2/3rds majority to both pass a budget and raise any revenue.

Worse, our state relies on Proposition Elections for damn near everything now, and what began as an earnest attempt to give the people a voice has turned into a monster, undermining Representative Democracy. Governing no longer happens in Sacramento, but at the ballot box, subject to whims of public opinion dearly paid for by the deep pockets of special interests.

But there is a way out of this mess. Now is the time to take the passion, commitment and
lessons of the California Obama campaign and focus it on California
like a laser. It will take political will, elbow grease, and the unwavering support of the Democratic Leadership on a State level.

Now What? 9 Progressive Solutions For A Better California

1) Elect a 2/3rd Democratic Majority In 2010
Ultimately, to achieve lasting reform, we need to repeal the 2/3rd rule, but this will take time (see #2). For now, our only option is seek 2/3rd majorities in both houses. A 2/3rd majority, even if it just lasts two years, would give the legislature the breathing room it needs to push through structural budget reforms to make our state governable again. We only need to gain 2 seats in the Senate and 4 in the Assembly.

2) Elect A Democratic Governor in 2010
Much of the current budget mess can be laid at the feet of our Republican governor, who vetoed a Democratic budget proposal earlier this year that would have balanced the budget without the need for a special election or such Draconian cuts. We need a governor that will work with the legislature and the people, not another rich and clueless political neophyte who will side with Republican obstructionists to block real reform.

3) Repeal the 2/3rd Rule To Pass A Budget AND Raise Revenue
The 2/3rds Budget and Revenue Rule is the single greatest impediment to a normal budget process in our state. Either through the legislative process or the ballot box, we need to repeal the rules that enable a small minority in the Legislature to hold the entire state hostage. But we must pass both. Because reforming the budget vote requirement without reforming the revenue vote requirement is no reform at all. We'll still be balancing
the budget by borrowing and with cuts, which is why we're in this mess in the first place.

4) Reform Term Limits
Currently legislators can only serve up to 6 years in the Assembly and 8 years in the State Senate. This system creates a semi-amateur pack of legislators who are continually looking for their next job, making them beholden to special interests. Even a modest extension of the current limits would go a long way towards reestablishing independence and professionalism in our legislature.

5) Turn Red Districts Blue With Voter Registration Efforts
During the general election last year, the Obama campaign in California - a solid Blue state - sent thousands of volunteers to neighboring Red and Purple states to register voters. The California Democratic Party needs to follow that model on a County level and organize voter registration drives in vulnerable Red Counties all over the state.

6) Reform The Initiative Process
Since 1911, Californians have made their voice heard through the initiative process, most famously in 1978 when Californians sparked a nationwide "tax revolt" by passing Proposition 13, which drastically limited property taxes and placed a permanent straitjacket on state revenues. Since then, voters have been inundated with hundreds of (often misleading and complicated) propositions to limit legislators' terms in office, mandate prison terms for criminals, to withdraw benefits from undocumented immigrants, to spend money on trains or sewers, to let Indian tribes run casinos or to take marriage rights away from same-sex partners.

It's a system run amok, and it's long overdue for reform. We have to hold ourselves and our leadership responsible and craft new legislation that would protect the people's voice while enacting safeguards that would prevent that voice from becoming an easily manipulated mob.

7) Sever Commercial Property Taxes From Prop.13 Protection
Since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, residential and commercial property have been taxed at the same rate, 1% of the purchase price with a maximum 2% increase a year. Severing commercial property taxes from Prop. 13 with carefully thought-out legislation would put an end to a sweetheart deal for big business and could raise up to $5 billion a year without harming vulnerable home owners and small business owners.

8) Enact an Oil Severance Tax
California, the third-largest oil producing state in the country, is the only state where oil is extracted without a tax. Yet, the Republican minority in the Legislature rejected a proposal put on the table by Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico that could have raised $1 billion a year. Instead, they're pushing for more oil drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara, which at most, would bring in only a 10th of the revenue under the current system.

9) Hold A Constitutional Convention
Frankly, this solution is the both the most difficult and the riskiest, and probably shouldn't be seriously considered without first accomplishing the first 6 goals on this list. California's current constitution rivals India's and Alabama's for being the longest and most convoluted in the world. It's been amended or revised more than 500 times and become a incoherent chaotic mess. There are several groups which are proposing a Constitutional Convention to fix this mess.

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