What would Hiram do?
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.