Thursday, October 29, 2009

Insider blasts California dysfunction

One of the longest-serving California politicians testified last week about the train wreck that is the California legislative process. Testimony by State treasurer Bill Lockyer included this (as reported by the LA Times);

"There's too much junk," Democrat Lockyer told the committee members, raising his voice. "I'm sorry, but two-thirds of the bills I see come out of the Assembly, if they never saw the light of day, God bless it. . . . Just stop it! Just stop it! . . . Just say 'No.' "
Meanwhile, in an excerpt posted to YouTube, Locker predicted a train wreck if the state doesn’t limit public employee pensions:
It's impossible for this legislature to reform the pension system and if we don’t we bankrupt the state. I don't think anybody can do it here because of who elected you.
If anyone is Sacramento insider, it’s Bill Lockyer. He spent 25 years in the state legislature, ending his stint as the leader of the state senate in 1998. He then joined the California musical chairs gig, in which Democratic officials swap statewide jobs every 8 years to avoid term limits. He spent eight years as attorney general and is nearing the end of his term as state treasurer.

Some argue that the solution to the problems of California misgovernance is weaker checks and balances, but I don’t think that was Lockyer’s intention. Lockyer said last week that he believes there should be a cap on spending, which suggests he does not expect to ever again compete in a contested Democratic primary (where public employee unions usually pick the nominee).

Lockyer was testifying before the legislative committee nominally interested in reforming itself. As the LA Times reported:
Legislative leaders created the reform committee for two basic reasons.

One is only whispered about. It's the threat of mass demotion. There's a proposed ballot initiative to reduce the full-time Legislature to part-time status, cutting members' salaries in half. That wouldn't be reform, only public retribution.

The part-time movement is struggling. But lawmakers are responding to the threat, trying to show voters that they can reform themselves.

As the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson observed: When a man knows he is about to be hanged, "it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

The second, more important and publicly stated reason for the committee's creation is that the state Capitol has fallen into dire disrepair. Politicians too often are paralyzed. California needs a functional Legislature to resolve its nagging budget, education, water, transportation and economic development problems, to list a few pressing priorities.
If California history is any precedent, the legislature will give up power (or otherwise make major reforms) only when it’s too late. (Exhibit A: Proposition 13). Potemkin reform (from the same people that give us Potemkin balanced budgets) will be the norm, until a ballot initiative qualifies.

The big question mark is the governator. A man of no discernible political or ideological principles, he has run against and embraced both parties as well as various special interests. A lame duck with a little over a year left in office, he could easily come out with both guns blazing, cajole the legislature into symbolic reform, or help them resist reforms in exchange for one last budget deal.

While workers in the real economy ignore Sacramento and get on with their lives, lack of budget discipline is wreaking havoc on the state’s once vaunted higher education system. Of course, the mismanagement of the state economy means that employers are seeking to move jobs (if not entire operations) out of the state. But neither seems urgent enough to change how the state govenrment works.

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