California Legislature notches a winning season

150 150 Jim Mayer

(photo credit: Peter Stephens) 

Legislative sessions begin like baseball seasons: lots of time and chances to swing the bat, hundreds of bills and dozens of hearings. There is always tomorrow.

But the end of session feels more like football: lots of huddles, last-minute gimmicks, blitzes and sacks. Naturally there are winners and losers, but even the victors walk away limping.

The post-game reports, including this one, are heavily influenced by team loyalty.

From CA Fwd’s perspective – nonpartisan, good governance – 2013 was a winning season, not a championship year, but steady progress.

The path forward for California must be built on sound fiscal practices. The state budget was on time, based on the Governor’s reality-based revenue estimate and honestly balanced. As in the past, CA Fwd encouraged lawmakers not to use the temporary spikes in revenue from stock market rallies to grow program spending, and the Governor and lawmakers are rightly getting credit for resisting that temptation this year.

To improve results, government must move closer to the people. Most services are delivered in communities by local governments, and state leaders this year continued to shift authority, resources, information and incentives to community leaders so they can solve problems.

Through the budget, the Legislature this year enabled counties to draw down federal dollars for mental health and expanded substance abuse services, including for criminal offenders. CA Fwd, which is working with counties to implement data-driven solutions to community problems, is helping counties tap the federal money and strengthen community corrections. Substance abuse and mental health issues must be addressed to break the expensive and ineffective cycle of lock ’em up, then let ’em go. This is a win-win-win.

The Governor and the Legislature this year also gave school boards more control by restructuring state educational funding. CA Fwd supported this monumental reform, which enables local trustees to work with their neighbors to decide how to spend funds to accomplish statewide goals.  CA Fwd also publicly urged lawmakers to implement the new Collaborative for Educational Excellence so that successful educators can help their colleagues. As with public safety realignment, local governments need to build the capacity and the culture to shift from a state-down compliance model to evidence- and data-based local strategies that improve results. CA Fwd is ready to help here, too.

To restore the CA dream we must create middle class jobs.  The Legislature acted on recommendations of the California Economic Summit, a partnership of CA Fwd and the California Stewardship Network. One bill waiting for the Governor’s signature, AB 53 (Speaker Perez), directs the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to tap into regional leaders to develop and periodically renew a strategy for growing jobs.  The law would create a new way to coordinate some of the most important actions impacting the wellbeing of all Californians. The Go-Biz office already is working through the Economic Summit to develop and act on the best ideas for re-establishing the potential for self-sufficiency and upward mobility for Californians.

The Legislature also took on the abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and sought to reduce the burden the law can impose on “green developments.” The final bill is useful (especially for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings), but does not satisfy the significant demands for reform from local governments, community groups and employers. Importantly, key policymakers were willing to go farther than some of the interest groups, and in this case a step in the right direction is better than gridlock.

There is more that could and should be done to make the process more transparent – particularly after the two-minute warning. We all understand the motivational value of deadlines. But it is hard to imagine turning the lights off in classrooms come exam time, yet the closer a bill gets to law the less the public can see. The California Forward Action Fund strongly supports SCA 10, which would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before the vote; but the Senate has yet to vote on proposed amendment. At the very least, the Legislature should make public the electronic version of bills that its own members can see, but voters cannot.

Time will tell if the changes to the system – including citizens redistricting, top-two primary and term limit reforms – are shifting that power back to the elected officials and the voters they represent. Some commentators are judging those reforms based on the philosophical nature of the Legislature’s choices, rather than the ability of lawmakers to take on problems, enact solutions and to be held accountable by voters for the results.

Progress continued on those system changes as well. Based on the input of nonprofits organizations interested in electoral reforms, including CA Fwd, the Legislature passed bills to make sure all mailed-in ballots are counted (last year 68,000 were not) and for improving the online disclosure of campaign contributions and lobbying activities. These are small steps for improving voter turnout, voter awareness and voter impact.  More is on the way from the Future of California Elections coalition.

Final score: California is getting better at governance. Much more needs to be done to ensure the poverty rate declines and the high school graduation rate increases, before we can spend less on public safety and more on public universities. But it is clear that good governance can improve outcomes, first in the Legislature, then in our neighborhoods.

Jim Mayer is the President & CEO of California Forward and a member of our Leadership Council


Jim Mayer

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