Commentary

10/18/2010 by Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews: Beyond the election

I’ve decided not to vote in this election.

After all, I know the results of the November election already.

California, a state badly in need of comprehensive governance reform, won’t get it.

The two top contenders for governor each have ruled out pursuing the kind of top-to-bottom electoral, budget and structural changes the state needs. The contest for control of the legislature isn’t a contest at all. We know already that Democrats will maintain their majorities in numbers virtually identical to those they hold today—despite the record-low 10 percent public approval rating of legislators. Why? Because California’s election system of large, single-member districts makes it impossible to change the partisan shape of the Legislature.

And the nine initiative measures on the ballot? Many of them have virtues, but there’s a real threat that each measure will make things worse. The reason? These measures are built upon a broken governing system, and so each initiative threatens to embed that system deeper into our civic life.

Say, for example, you think California needs to preserve and improve its parks. You would want to vote for Prop 21, which would establish a separate funding stream (via vehicle fees) for the parks. But in California, successful initiatives – unless they include language specifically permitting amendment – can’t be altered except by another vote of the people. Prop 21 thus fixes in concrete very specific formulas for funding various different conservation and parks programs. Can even the strongest supporter of parks be confident that those will be the right formulas forever?

Even promising reforms on this ballot are fatally out of context and out of order. Take Prop 25, a well-intentioned measure to enact a good policy: that budget and spending bills may be passed with only a majority vote, instead of the 2/3 supermajority that’s currently required. But the budget supermajority isn’t the only supermajority that distorts our government. There are supermajorities that govern other aspects of the budget – tax increases, school funding, local government funds, transportation – that will be left untouched by Prop 25. Which is why one should expect just as much budget chaos and delay, if not more, if 25 wins. It will take a complete dismantling of the supermajority measures – and various other whips and chains in the budget ratchet – to restore budget sanity and make the majority party accountable again for budgets.

Of course, we can’t pursue that dismantling now because, well, the hole California has dug for itself is just that deep. The state doesn’t have just one broken system—it has three broken systems: its initiative process, its budget process and its election process. And so it’s impossible to fix any one of those systems without addressing the others. What’s the point of restoring majority accountability to the budget process if your election system doesn’t permit voters to throw the majority party out of office? How do you justify putting rational limits on the initiative process when it’s the only outlet voters have, since the election system gives them little power and the budget process institutionalizes gridlock?

The answer is that all three systems must be reformed, together, as a whole. That can’t be done by any candidate or any single ballot measure. No single election can solve our problems. So feel free to join me in not bothering with this one. We all need to bother with comprehensive reform instead.

Joe Mathews is coauthor of "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It" and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog by our guest elections columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of California Forward or our Leadership Council.

Categories: Civic Engagement, Elections, Governance Reform

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