California Forward senior fiscal policy advisor Fred Silva has been in and around California state government for nearly 40 years and remains optimistic that state policy makers may yet restore California’s once high standing.
He said there are two reasons for his optimism: people are more likely to accept reform if a sense of crisis exists, as it does now; and if the reform group is broad based in business, education, civic organizations, etc., as California Forward is.
Silva, 68, graduated from San Jose State in 1967 with a degree in public administration and spent the next eight years with local government agencies in the SF Bay Area. He was at the Capitol, serving as chief consultant to the Senate Local Government Committee, when voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, forever changing the relationship between state and local governments.
“Before 1978 the topic of local government was of limited interest to most legislators who focused on statewide issues,” Silva said. “We had a long history of local government independence primarily due to the fact that the property tax was locally levied and controlled. Proposition 13 gave the property tax to the state to distribute and forever changed the view of state legislators. Now they had control of not only statewide taxes (income and sales) but the property tax as well.
“For those who care about the strength of our community governments it was a big mistake to hand $12 billion (now it is $45 billion) to a bunch of legislators to distribute. If we fix nothing else in Proposition 13 it should be to return control over the distribution of the property tax to our community governments.”
In 1994, Silva joined the California Constitution Revision Commission that had been created by Gov. Pete Wilson and legislative leaders to propose a set of governance and fiscal revisions to the constitution.
“We made our recommendation to the legislature in 1996. By that time the state economy was in full recovery and legislators and interest groups wondered why we were there. An opportunity was missed because the crisis had passed.”
The Public Policy Institute of California was next for him, and for nine years he helped develop proposals. “I tried to be the bridge between policy researchers and the Capitol,” he said. “It was fun and interesting.” So much so that when the opportunity came to join California Forward in 2006, and continue doing much the same work, he did.
How do today’s legislators differ from those of 30 or 40 years ago? “There has always been a core group of legislators who spent time working on difficult policy issues – water, health, criminal justice. In an earlier time they provided leadership on a bipartisan basis to find solutions. Part of the current problem is that term limits and a high degree of partisanship has eroded the ability of legislators and executive branch officials to get to a goal.”
Silva’s job requires that he not only keep abreast of the many books, reports and papers that are constantly being written about California’s state and local governments but that he write many of them himself. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that he’s written enough reports and op-ed pieces to keep the League of Women Voters in discussion topics for the next 10 years.
Silva, a Napa resident, occasionally plays a little golf for relaxation. But what he really enjoys is woodworking in the shop he has at home. “I got into it when I was redoing a kitchen, and discovered the fun of actually building cabinets and some of the other wooden elements in a kitchen. If I can help a friend who wants a new kitchen, I’m the guy. I don’t make money doing it, I spend money doing it. But it’s fun, and makes my head work in a way different than it usually does and you can actually see something get accomplished.”
Bob Schmidt is a writer for the Capitol Morning Report