This is usually the time for looking ahead, making resolutions, wishing for greater things. But in California we’ve locked ourselves into a mind-set and governmental processes that look like nothing so much as deliberate attempts to avoid thinking about the future, much less dealing with it.
Through term limits, we’ve created a Legislature that has neither an institutional memory nor members who can expect to be rewarded for long-term success, and thus, with rare exceptions, lack any motivation for leadership or inclination to sacrifice and compromise in the present.
We have refused to change a supermajority requirement, one of the few such absurdities in America, which allows any minority to veto any budget or tax increase. If five Republicans – three in the Assembly and two in the Senate – had been willing to negotiate such a compromise, the state would have had a budget long ago.
Their loyalty to an ideology trumps all others. This is the ideology of Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform: Starve the beast. It is that ideology as much as any that has put the country into the fiscal and regulatory mess it’s in now.
We have tied ourselves into knots with a combination of governmental decisions and waves of voter initiatives whose most common characteristic, whether liberal or conservative, is short-sightedness. Among others:
• Unfunded multibillion-dollar bond issues for stem cell research, high-speed rail, children’s hospitals and for paying off past debts. With interest, the long-term cost of each will be double the advertised price.
• A $6 billion annual “spending increase” to replace local government funding lost through an impulsive cut in the car tax.
• Autopilot sentencing laws hastily passed in the wake of one heinous crime that continue to cost billions in prison expenses.
• An inflexible class-size reduction program pushed through without study or serious debate by a petulant governor wishing to punish the teachers unions. It costs $2 billion a year.
• An unfunded initiative extending pre- and after-school programs that costs close to $500 million a year.
• Corporate tax loopholes written into the tax code in flush times that easily matched the increased spending on education and other programs that were enacted in the same years.
• And the grandfather of them all: the convoluted, accountability-defying, state-local tax and revenue system spawned thirty years ago by the passage of Proposition 13 and the long string of state measures to bail out the locals that have been enacted in the years since.
Those bailouts inadvertently taught all the wrong lessons: that you can have your local property tax limitations and good services, too; that the way to solve any major problem was through the initiative, not through electoral politics; that the legislature and governor who bailed you out were irrelevant and often worse; that the citizen’s first concern was not community but what he could get from it.
Those ballot measures were almost always designed not to be respectful of political minorities – their very essence was to get a 51 percent majority – or to serve the state’s long-term interests. They were usually drawn by deep-pockets groups, and advertised to address an issue of the moment. As new problems arise, the remedy is a fix for problems present, rarely for problems yet to come.
It’s long been a truism that we’re living on the investments and foresight of the past: our once-pioneering highway systems, now in terrible disrepair; the state’s unmatched public universities, now increasingly struggling against the effects of declining public support; the statesmanship that created a great water system by linking the need for water supplies in the south to flood control in the north.
Like much of the rest of the state’s infrastructure, that too is now superannuated, the victim of chronic neglect. The miracle of the infrastructure – and the tribute to its farsighted creators – is that it served the state so well for so long.
It helped drive the great California boom of the postwar decades – attracted the talented, ambitious men and women who made California the great center of technology and creativity it became. They didn’t come for low taxes, but for good schools, outstanding research universities, parks, recreation and transportation.
California historian Kevin Starr asks where the great leaders of California’s future will come from. Where are the Pat Browns, the Clark Kerrs, the Earl Warrens, the Goodwin Knights, the Phil Burtons? Where are visionaries like the philosopher Josiah Royce, born in 1855 in Grass Valley, who believed that Californians would always understand that their interests lay in community, not self-aggrandizement?
What they shared was a vision of the future, a fundamental optimism about this place. It’s that kind of hope and optimism, and that kind of people that, at this time of year especially, are so much worth wishing for.
Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article is published with his permission.