Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A level-headed, unambiguous prescription for California reform

Facing a crisis of governance far beyond today’s California’s quagmire, Abraham Lincoln advised lawmakers in the midst of the Civil War that “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

That is perhaps the underlying theme of an important new book that seeks to guide the state out of political dysfunction and paralysis threatening ruin the once-golden state. Instead of surrendering to what seem to be intractable problems, voters need to step back — to disenthrall themselves — and have a look at some readily available solutions.

That’s where California Crackup comes into its own. Far more than a convincing compendium of problems — God knows, those are obvious enough — the book is a level-headed, unambiguous prescription for fundamental treatments that could bring a cure. No more commonsense remedy has been proposed. The blueprint offered by Joe Matthews and Mark Paul moves beyond the tentative and inadequate proposals already on the table and convincingly outlines why far more basic structural changes are the only hope.

Paul and Matthews are not plain vanilla goo-goos, as good government advocates are sometimes called. Their plan for political restructuring is audacious and will sound untenable to much of the state’s political establishment. It’s up to citizens to see through that self-interested inertia and demand action — and that’s why we must “disenthrall ourselves.”

Here is the good news: these changes, while politically difficult, are by no means beyond our grasp. Embracing them may require statesmanship akin to America’s founders — or perhaps Lincoln himself — but the solutions are readily at hand:

* Make California governance genuinely representative again;
* Eliminate paralyzing super-majority requirements for the most significant legislative actions; and
* Reform the out-of-control initiative process that has hatched many of these structural flaws while also giving voters greater authority to reverse legislation via referendum.

Here is the bad news: it will take nothing short of a constitutional convention to achieve reform on this necessary scale.  Difficult to initiate and admittedly dangerous in implications, a convention nonetheless emerges as the only real hope for integrated reforms with a chance to salvage state government.

Those who take advantage of the current chaos always pretend these solutions are too radical and too difficult to achieve. They’re wrong; honestly, it’s not that complicated. The special interests and their bedfellows — entrenched politicians — have created a fog of confusion and fear about reform; this clear, straightforward manifesto shows just how duplicitous that is.

The three integrated structural changes championed in the book are tested, mainstream proposals. 

Anyone want to argue that the current election system is working well? Perhaps the most dramatic change proposed would create a unicameral (single house) legislature elected from multimember districts. California’s legislators on average represent 10 times as many voters as in other states, which means we need more representatives who can be held accountable by smaller populations.

Systems like those that require two-thirds votes for passing budgets were instituted because voters didn’t trust elected officials. Those issues would go away with more transparent, accountable representation, which makes eliminating the super-majority requirements seem like simple, commonsense democracy. Who doesn’t want the majority to make decisions? If 65 percent of the voters in your town want to build a new school, 35 percent shouldn’t be able to veto the financing.

Finally, it makes good sense to thin the bewildering jungle of initiative-passed laws by making it slightly tougher to gather signatures and by allowing the legislature to propose alternatives on the same ballot. To make sure voters still have a club, a tougher referendum would let them reverse legislative action by majority vote.

Dramatic change? Yes, indeed, but hardly radical and certainly not impossible. In less than 200 pages of clear, accessible prose, Paul and Matthews have given worried Californians reason to hope that real reform can still take root. They have disenthralled themselves, and by doing so equipped citizens to set their government aright.

How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It
by Joe Matthews and Mark Paul
University of California Press, 224 pages

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