Is governing California even possible these days?
Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub tackled that question in a speech at UC Davis last week, arguing that hyper-partisanship in the capitol is the number one obstacle to effective state government.
The speech was the first of a four-part series hosted by the Institute of Governmental Affairs called “Meltdown: Institutional Changes Facing California.”
Weintraub emphasized the distinction between life in California and life in the Capitol Building. While things may be dismal on the government’s side, it’s important to realize that quality of life indicators suggest living in California has only gotten better in the past decade, he said.
For example, personal incomes have risen and the number of jobs has increased. The number of families receiving welfare benefits has plummeted, and the number of Californians who have health insurance – publicly or privately provided – has increased. Violent crime rates are down dramatically, even in cities like Los Angeles where the population has grown significantly.
Despite all the recent bad news about California college budgets, even higher education has gotten better, Weintraub said.
“Over a 10 year period ending last year, the number of degrees granted in higher education in California grew twice as fast as the population,” he said. “So this isn’t the first year we’ve been hearing about a squeeze in access to higher ed, but the numbers suggest that in fact, a much larger share of the population is getting a higher education today than ten years ago.”
Weintraub traced Sacramento’s budget problems back to the dot com era, when state legislators increased spending commitments as tax revenues skyrocketed. After the dot com bust, tax revenues fell but the spending programs were still there.
“That spelled the end of that governor, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger really hasn’t done any better of a job of managing it since then,” he said.
The recession that began in 2008 made things worse, but the real culprit is polarization, Weintraub said.
Indicators like ballot measures, governor races and voter registration patterns show that Californians go “every which way” and “are not wedded to one camp or the other,” he said.
“While Democrats have made a comeback recently thanks to Obama’s campaign and election, the fastest growing segment of the electorate is people who refuse to be a member of either party,” he said.
Yet as voters become more independent, the political system is becoming more polarized.
“Why is that happening? Well, one thing that’s happening is that folks who don’t care so much about partisan labels and ideology are leaving the parties,” he said. “The people left behind are the true believers, so we’re sort of self-purifying the parties, and the parties still control the political system, and still control the policy system. So the people who are the absolute, true, die-hard partisans are the ones who are left on the battlefield, and everyone else is kind of vacating it.”
Weintraub proposed three solutions to the seemingly intractable problems in Sacramento. The first was one that voters have already approved: a less-politicized redistricting system.
“You can’t take the politics out of politics. There will still be many districts that are lopsided one way or the other. That’s just the way we live, but if you take out this conflict of interest that’s been there for legislators to draw districts to further political agendas, I think that over time you will see some modest moderating of the legislature.”
Weintraub also advocated for an open primary system, in which voters would be allowed to vote for any candidate, regardless of party, during the primary election. The top two vote-getters in the primary election – again, regardless of party – would move on to the general election.
Weintraub’s final suggestion was for “pretty aggressive public financing” of statewide political campaigns. This would be an effective way to reduce the influence of special interest groups with large amounts of money on both sides of the aisle, he said. Though Republicans tend to oppose public financing, Weintraub said he believed they should support it since it would lessen the massive political influence of unions.
The talk was the first in the IGA’s four-part series. State Senator Lois Wolk, D-Davis, will give the next speech in the series on Oct. 14 at noon. UC Davis economics professor Steven Sheffrin and California Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo are also scheduled to speak later this fall.
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.