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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

California Dreamin’

As goes California, so goes the nation. And between Nixon, Reagan and the political climate they bequeathed unto us, that certainly appears to be the case.

When it comes to the interplay of the economy, demographic trends and problems of political gridlock stymieing legislative action, California and the U.S. of A have some deeply troubling things in common.

The key to understanding our state’s budget gridlock is the way we elect our representatives. Legislators have an incentive to cement their party’s electoral success, so when it comes time to redistrict every 10 years they draw funny lines that make little to no geographic or demographic sense which partition regions of the state so as to minimize competition during general elections.

That is, they gerrymander.

This is a problem. It’s become impossible to mount challenges to the incumbent party, let alone the incumbents themselves. In 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 not a single incumbent legislator in the state Assembly or Senate was voted out of office in the general election.

But that doesn’t mean the legislators don’t face credible challenges; it’s just that those challenges, or their implied threat, come in the primaries.

What results is political polarization. Because uncompetitive districts allow politicians to ignore moderates, they instead face primary races against ideological thoroughbreds. This drives their base of support poleward, making them accountable mostly to Ayn Rand or Karl Marx and rather unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Eisenhower or Kennedy. They know that their support and electoral fate depend not on winning legislative victories for their constituents, but on scoring points within their own party.

Fail to comply, and the party will find another suit with more pure ideological bonafides. This has ultimately led to a complete lack of moderates in the Assembly and the Senate, especially for the Republican minority.

But gerrymandering and party primaries do not a gridlocked legislature make. For a true impasse, you need term limits.

With a maximum tenure of just six years for those in the state Assembly and eight years for those in the state Senate, the problem of inaction becomes even more severe. As the literature surrounding cooperation and collective action problems shows, increased chances of future interaction lead to higher rates of cooperation. Term limits undermine that.

Think about it; if I know I’m going to see you tomorrow, odds are I’m not going to punch you in the face and take your wallet. But if I know I’ll never see you or anyone you know again, I just might. So a state assemblyman who is only going to be working with his colleagues for at most six years has a very low incentive to reach across the isle and come to workable solutions.

Of course, this is all occurring in the context of two horrendous pieces of state law. The first piece is Prop 13, a ballot initiative passed in 1978 that set up the two-thirds majority requirement for new taxes and absolutely destroyed the state’s ability to collect already established property taxes.

The second is a provision in the state constitution dating from 1933 requiring a two-thirds majority for the passage of a budget. This has hogtied the already pig headed legislators, leaving them entirely impotent.

And so goes California. Even with a Republican governor, Democrats can’t recruit just three Republican votes to pass the tax increases and budget necessary to cover our $42 billion deficit over the next 18 months. So we’re laying off 10 percent of the state workforce, mandating furloughs, releasing prisoners, slashing wages, ending all construction projects and slashing social welfare spending.

The one Republican willing to support a tax increase was minority leader Dave Cogdill, or should I say former minority leader Dave Cogdill; his party ousted him in retaliation, installing a stalwart anti-tax conservative just this Tuesday.

In so doing, California Republicans decided that they would rather let the state fail than break with their ideology of nonexistent government. This path, interestingly, is exactly their policy ideal. What better way to shrink government than to sabotage it from the inside and bring about the libertarian wet dream they not-so-secretly harbor? If that’s their strategy, it’s working for them.

But it’s not working for us.

To make it work for us, the first thing California needs is to eliminate term limits; they set an impossibly short time horizon, generating incentives identical to those of CEO’s who have little reason to think about long-term viability.

Second, at both the state and national level, politicians must be made sensitive to moderate concerns. Either by redistricting to make general elections competitive, reworking elections to minimize the importance of parties (e.g. via spending or advertising limits) or by introducing Choice Voting. Choice Voting especially would assure that the Ayn Rands and Karl Marxs are not catered to and produce representatives with broader mandates.

Third, there must be a roll back of the supermajority requirements for legislative action. This is especially true, and more easily accomplished, in California. Unlike the rules of the U.S. Senate, all it takes to alter the state’s constitution is a simple majority of voters (e.g. Prop 8). If a proposition were to pass altering the 1933 statute and Prop 13, or preferably making it easier for the legislature to do so, then we might finally see capable governance.

If we can do these three things, the political landscape of the Bear Flag Republic would change overnight. Of course, if the state defaults, the landscape would also change overnight. And if the old adage is true, we should hope it’s the latter; the nation’s landscape may well hang in the balance.


K.C. CODY thinks the Bear Flag Republic needs a complete overhaul. Tell him what overhauls you’d like to see at kccody@ucdavis.edu.


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