What would Hi­ram do?

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - HAROLD MEY­ER­SON Harold Mey­er­son is edi­tor at large of the Amer­i­can Prospect and a colum­nist for the Washington Post. He has been writ­ing a weekly guest col­umn on our Op-Ed page.

Of all the Cal­i­for­nia gu­ber­na­to­rial polls taken this year, the one that tells us most about the state didn’t pit Jerry Brown against Meg Whitman. In July, the folks at Pub­lic Pol­icy Polling de­cided, pre­sum­ably just for the heck of it, to see how Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger and Gray Davis would stack up if they ran against each other to­day. Davis won. At first glance, we could take this to mean that Cal­i­for­ni­ans have so soured on Sch­warzeneg­ger that his stock has fallen be­low even that of the only gover­nor ever re­called in the state. But the real mean­ing of the poll, I think, is nowhere so Sch­warzeneg­ger­spe­cific.

Rather, the poll re­sults mean that given the struc­tural dys­func­tion of Cal­i­for­nia govern­ment, any gover­nor, no mat­ter his or her party, ide­ol­ogy or skills, will leave of­fice a fail­ure. In Cal­i­for­nia, the prin­ci­ples of ma­jor­ity rule and mi­nor­ity veto have been so cat­a­stroph­i­cally equal­ized that state govern­ment is in­ca­pable of set­ting poli­cies or even pass­ing a bud­get.

Both Brown and Whitman, of course, in­sist that they can break through Sacra­mento’s chronic grid­lock, but do­ing so would re­quire far-reach­ing re­forms be­yond what ei­ther of them has sug­gested.

Whitman in par­tic­u­lar has said pre­cious lit­tle about how, as a Repub­li­can gover­nor, she’d deal with what is sure to be both a ma­jor­ity-Demo­crat and pro­foundly par­a­lyzed Leg­is­la­ture. She vows to start the bud­get process ear­lier and not to travel out­side the state while the bud­get re­mains un­re­solved. If that’s all she’s got, it’s clear that none of the $119 mil­lion of her own money spent thus far on her cam­paign has gone for think­ing about what to do about state govern­ment’s in­abil­ity to do any­thing.

Brown, for his part, has made some promis­ing sug­ges­tions. He sup­ports Propo­si­tion 25, the bal­lot mea­sure that would en­able the Leg­is­la­ture to pass a bud­get with a ma­jor­ity — rather than the cur­rent two-thirds — vote. He wants to re­quire ini­tia­tives to iden­tify the fund­ing sources that will pay for the pro­grams they es­tab­lish. He re­cently sug­gested, as a way to break bud­getary im­passes should Propo­si­tion 25 fail, putting the Democrats’ and the Repub­li­cans’ fi­nal bud­get plans be­fore the vot­ers — pre­sum­ably, ev­ery year — and let­ting the vot­ers pick one.

These are cre­ative ideas, but they amount to just a frac­tion of the re­forms re­quired to make Cal­i­for­nia govern­ment work again. As Joe Mathews and Mark Paul have sug­gested in their im­por­tant new book, “Cal­i­for­nia Crackup: How Re­form Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” Cal­i­for­nia needs to strengthen the power of its Leg­is­la­ture to leg­is­late by re­quir­ing sim­ple ma­jori­ties for both bud­gets and tax in­creases. It needs to make its govern­ment less be­wil­der­ing and more ac­count­able by shift­ing to a uni­cam­eral leg­is­la­ture, cen­ter­ing ex­ec­u­tive power in the gover­nor (partly by elim­i­nat­ing other elected statewide of­fices), and abol­ish­ing the thou­sands of boards and spe­cial dis­tricts that only serve to ob­fus­cate pol­i­cy­mak­ing. It needs to make it harder to qual­ify ini­tia­tives (it’s eas­ier here than in the other 49 states) and eas­ier to amend them.

Ad­mit­tedly, that’s a tall or­der. His­tor­i­cally, Cal­i­for­ni­ans have en­acted re­forms this far-reach­ing just once — in 1911, fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Gov. Hi­ram John­son, who ran on a plat­form of re­struc­tur­ing state govern­ment so that it could no longer be con­trolled by the South­ern Pa­cific Rail­road, whose money had long con­trolled both par­ties. In­deed, John­son, a Teddy Roo­sevelt Repub­li­can, and Theodore Bell, his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, both ran against the South­ern Pa­cific, but Bell couldn’t match John­son’s red-hot “or­chi­da­ceous or­a­tory” (in the words of Cal­i­for­nia his­to­rian Kevin Starr). Claim­ing a clear man­date for re­form, John­son and the Leg­is­la­ture es­tab­lished di­rect pri­maries, se­cret bal­lots and the ini­tia­tive, ref­er­en­dum and re­call.

To cre­ate the mo­men­tum for the kind of mas­sive re­struc­tur­ing that Cal­i­for­nia govern­ment needs to­day, both Brown and Whitman need more than a touch of Hi­ram John­son in their own cam­paigns. They lack, of course, the kind of uni­ver­sally de­spised tar­get that John­son was able to run against, but they have some­thing else — the in­creas­ing re­al­iza­tion by Cal­i­for­ni­ans that their govern­ment no longer func­tions. Surely Brown and Whitman could make some head­way by high­light­ing the state’s se­ri­ous struc­tural flaws and sug­gest­ing some fixes.

Brown may be inch­ing to­ward that kind of cam­paign; Whitman, who’s shown no ap­par­ent in­ter­est in strength­en­ing the power of the leg­isla­tive ma­jor­ity so long as it’s Demo­cratic, isn’t. With­out a man­date for gov­ern­men­tal re­struc­tur­ing, though, nei­ther Whitman nor Brown is likely to gov­ern any more suc­cess­fully than Davis or Sch­warzeneg­ger.

It’s time, Meg and Jerry, to re­lease your in­ner Hi­ram.

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