The Big State that Couldn’t

California, the giant adolescent, has been outgrowing its governmental clothes, now, for a hundred years,” Carey McWilliams, the state’s greatest chronicler, wrote in 1949. More than 60 years later, state government has still failed to catch up with the growth, diversity, energy, ambition, and chicanery that have shaped California. Here’s why:

Constitutional chaos: In 1879 California created a governing document nearly 20 times the length of the U.S. Constitution. Its drafters, concerned that their per diem payments for staying in Sacramento had expired, approved the new constitution before hearing it read in full, then promptly left town. The document, a crazy quilt of maddening complexity, would be amended 500 times in the next two centuries.

Too much initiative: In a bid to give popular democracy a fighting chance against the omnipotent Southern Pacific Railroad, Governor Hiram Johnson added a system of initiative, referendum, and recall to state government in 1911. The system was soon co-opted by powerful political and corporate interests, which now spend hundreds of millions on misleading ad campaigns. By the end of the 20th century, Californians were passing as many ballot measures as had been passed in all preceding decades. These bills hamstring the rational operations of government, and frequently have citizens voting for competing bills and for services the state has no money to pay for.

Gerrymandering: The once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps based on the census has created an increasingly partisan and polarized atmosphere in Sacramento, as incumbents handcrafted districts that enabled the election of the most ideologically extreme candidates in both parties. Although voters ultimately approved reforms to address the problem, it remains unclear how effective they will be.

Proposition 13: The passage of Prop. 13 in 1978 brought some tax relief, but it also shifted the property-tax burden from corporations to homeowners. To lessen the measure’s financial impact, Capitol politicians moved power to Sacramento and away from city councils, boards of supervisors, and school boards, creating a maze of overlapping jurisdictions that defies accountability.

Boom and bust: The post–Prop. 13 state depends increasingly on volatile sources of revenue—sales, corporation, and progressive personal income taxes. These generate annual shifts in tax collections that correspond closely to the business cycle. When economic times are good, money pours in and there’s little political incentive for long-term financial planning. When taxes decline, the Capitol rarely makes real spending reductions, preferring to wait for the next boom.

The two-thirds vote: Prop. 13 requires a two-thirds vote for new state spending and taxes, overriding the simple majority system under which the legislature does all other business. The supermajority requirement effectively hands a veto to the minority party, setting the stage for stalemate and deadlock.

Term limits: The 1990 term-limits initiative failed to get rid of career politicians—it simply changed the arc of their careers by encouraging lawmakers to begin positioning themselves for the next political office (or lobbyist position) upon arriving in Sacramento. This system rewards short-term, self-interested political thinking more than long-term, public-interest decision-making, while empowering lobbyists as both the repository of Capitol policy expertise in the public interest and the source of campaign cash.

The University of Prison: Spending on state prisons, which was $441 million when the tough-on-crime laws precipitated a penitentiary building boom in the 1970s, now costs the state $8.7 billion, or 10 percent of the California budget. By contrast, spending on higher education has decreased as a percentage of the budget, from 15 percent in Brown’s first term to 10 percent today. The results: skyrocketing costs and fewer classes for UC students, and a state prison system so violent and overcrowded it has been taken over by the federal courts.

Union now: When Governor Jerry Brown gave public employee unions collective bargaining rights in 1977, he made the unions a dominant force in Sacramento. Since then, they have built a massively expensive system of defined benefit retirement plans that, linked to local government pensions around the state, threaten California’s long-term fiscal solvency.

From the Fall 2012 Politics Issue issue of California.
Filed under: Law + Policy
Image source: Illustrations by Eric Larsen
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