This piece originally appeared on Fox & Hounds
It’s difficult to find one word to describe the overall mood of Californians.
There’s anxiety, frustration and anger about the state of our once Golden State.
Unlike previous generations, for many the California Dream will always be just a dream.
But when thousands of community leaders came together for genuine discussions about the state’s economy, other words surfaced: Innovation and hope, entrepreneurship and confidence, even a stubborn pride that California business can lead the world again.
Several months ago, this conversation started in 14 “regions” that are geographic areas defined more by common economic activity than political boundaries. The question posed was this: If we could take any four or five actions to turn our state’s economy around, what would they be?
These regional forums were sponsored by our partner, the California Stewardship Network, which is made up of regional groups that welcomed an opportunity to harmonize and build upon their previous discussions statewide. The forums revealed amazing agreement on a few of the right next steps to attract capital, improve workforce skills and reduce the unintended friction in regulations.
Regional participants then formed action teams to further refine the ideas, which were then presented and discussed at the first-ever California Economic Summit in Santa Clara in May.
The first deliverable from the Summit was a commitment to restoring California’s prosperity that was signed by participants, and can be signed by you here.
The Summit also identified a number of actions that can be distilled into two immediate priorities:
1. California must creatively invest in people, infrastructure and innovation to prepare the regions of our state to compete in the 21st Century Global Economy.
2. California must streamline complex regulatory processes to reduce the cost of doing business while maintaining environmental standards.
To promote these priorities, seven “signature initiatives” were developed to begin articulating the comprehensive and sustained efforts needed to make California an attractive place to do business and foster quality job growth that in turn will reduce poverty, bolster the middle class, and provide the revenue that will allow California to double down on its future.
The recommended actions include improving the efficiency and reducing abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act, increasing workforce skills, encouraging innovation, making investment capital accessible to businesses, financing public infrastructure, and overhauling the water system.
All of these issues have been and continue to be controversial. The summit demonstrated, however, that civil conversations can reveal solutions acceptable to both sides – and that even more civil discussion is needed to resolve the largest conflicts.
The full Action Plan, which was released on July 2, can be found here. It recommends 47 steps (one of which was just checked off the list when the federal government announced the opening of a California-based patent office in San Jose).
So now what happens?
As Pete Weber, co-chair of the Action Team on Water Infrastructure, put it: “We are not filing this report and going away. We are committed to working on these implementation steps and getting this economy going again. It is hard work, but hundreds of us are willing to put in the time which we believe will inspire our elected officials to start taking the necessary steps to restore California’s leadership in the world economy.”
California’s diversity includes its economic regions and drivers. What’s important to Fresno may or may not be important to San Diego, or the Inland Empire. This process respects that. But regional leaders also understand that to improve regional economies, they need the attention and support of state officials.
Regardless of what we believe personally, California has earned a reputation as a costly place to do business. The regulatory structure is complicated and the process governing permits is adversarial. Doing business in California is viewed by some government agencies as a privilege rather than a vital component to individual self-sufficiency, social growth and fiscal stability for public programs.
Californians’ concern with the economy tracks with their declining confidence in state-elected officials to address the important issues.
The California Economic Summit and its Action Plan, driven by an informed and active group of bipartisan regional champions, give elected officials pragmatic steps they can do to remedy both of these problems.
The Summit also documented something that California Forward and its partners at the California Stewardship Network know to be true: If given a chance, interest group leaders are willing to talk through issues that are important to them as a means of finding pragmatic solutions to big problems.
George Schultz, one of the Summit’s co-chairs, began the event by reading the slogan on a necktie given to him by Ronald Reagan: “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
Neither is fixing California’s economy. Change will require champions. You can enlist at www.caeconomy.org.
Jim Mayer is the Executive Director of California Forward