Commentary

07/16/2010 by Ash Roughani

Rules no substitute for leadership, but they’re a good complement

Yesterday, California officially entered its third week into the 2010-11 Fiscal Year without a budget. While this is hardly surprising to close watchers of California politics and nowhere even close to the 85 days late which the previous year’s budget was enacted, the inevitable annual delay certainly does little to improve public perception of state leaders.

But what if they were not to blame? Our good friend Joe Matthews over at the Prop Zero blog wrote last week,

“The problem with the budget blame game is that it's misleading. It feeds the public misperception that the actions of particular individuals are the reason for budget delays and other bad budget news. Change the people in office and you change the budget outcome, this argument goes. The truth is harder. The politicians aren't to blame. The budget system is.”

We at California Forward could not agree with him more. One of our Leadership Council members, Santa Cruz County Treasurer-Tax Collector and former Speaker pro Tem of the State Assembly, Fred Keeley, likens this state of affairs to automobile repair. Yes, automobile repair.

Imagine if you took a modern hybrid electric vehicle (think Toyota Prius or Honda Insight) to your mechanic, but that the only tools your mechanic had lying around the repair shop were those only appropriate for working on a Ford Model T. If you’re unfamiliar with the Model T, all you need to know is that it was first manufactured in 1908. Now, would you blame your mechanic for not being able to fix your hybrid? Probably not.

It would be prudent for your mechanic to update his or her toolkit, though. And so the logic goes, our elected leaders lack the proper tools to deal with modern challenges. The result: 

approval ratings of governor and legislature

California’s budget process is outdated because it’s based on a model that is focused on inputs (dollars) instead of outcomes (what we’re getting for those dollars). Our budget process works in this way because it was designed to prevent theft of public resources; every dollar needed to be accounted for back when these rules were put into place during the early 20th Century because of rampant corruption.

But with the advent of modern accounting systems, policymakers can focus instead on performance and how best to maximize the effectiveness of public programs at the lowest possible cost.

Oftentimes, rules cannot be a substitute for leadership. In other words, we don’t think that modernizing the state budget process will supplant the need for elected officials to prioritize governing ahead of winning.

Nope. That would be pie-in-the-sky.

What we are saying, however, is that the rules of the game matter and that updating these rules would be a good complement to leadership.

Ash Roughani is a project associate at California Forward. 

Categories: Fiscal Reform Plan, Fred Keeley

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