This article was also published on Calbuzz.
Californians have just moved through two important dates: the end of the fiscal year, and the 4th of July weekend. For fiscal and policy nerds like me, it makes sense to pause for a moment and reflect on “what condition our condition is in.”
California’s constitution requires a balanced budget as state government began the new fiscal year on July 1st (Happy Fiscal New Year!). This year, as opposed to most previous years in the 1990s and first decade of 2000s, the constitution was respected.
While many people are not entirely pleased with the outcome, the legislature and the governor met their constitutional obligations (although it is curious that we practically do back flips when the bare minimum is accomplished). Nonetheless, with a new governor and a new provision in the state’s constitution that allows a budget to be adopted on a majority vote rather than the absurdly dysfunction-inducing two-thirds vote of previous years, the job got done.
A few days prior to this accomplishment, another of California’s voter-approved laws was respected by the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission which issued its first draft of new legislative district, congressional, and Board of Equalization district lines.
Despite the drumbeat of negative predictions from even before the commission began its work, it produced perhaps the most reasonable and lawful maps in recent memory. The commission followed a transparent, open public process that considered the only three tests allowed under the law regarding redistricting: the results of the once-a-decade census, the Voting Rights Act, and the rather broadly defined notion of “community of interest.” Rather than producing “an incumbent protection act,” the draft 2011 redistricting echoes the post-1990 census maps drawn by the courts.
In 2012, elections will be conducted using district lines that will be adopted in August by the commission. They will also feature the newly voter-adopted “Top Two Vote Getter” primary. Some folks claim that there is no way to know what these two electoral changes will produce. A look at recent history suggests something else.
In the 1990s, California’s redistricting was accomplished by the courts, not the legislature. At the same time, a voter-approved form of open primaries was adopted. The results produced a legislature — from about 1995 through 1999 — that had a broader ideological middle than before or since that time. We can debate how to measure the productivity of the legislature. But my experience as a legislator during that time makes me believe that such a broader middle produces budgets and policy that more accurately reflects California’s place on the ideological spectrum (a slightly left of center state that is getting a bit more so).
Throughout the last decade, for the most part, the legislature has been both more to the right and more to the left than the electorate at large. The 2012 elections are likely to produce a legislature that is controlled by Democrats, but with somewhat larger numbers of moderates in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses.
So, upon reflection, it appears as if some of the recently voter-enacted reforms of the electoral and governance systems are starting to take hold and producing signs of positive change.
What about other reforms that are under discussion?
Many reform-oriented organizations, such as California Forward, What’s Next California?, Common Cause, League of Women Voters, and California Calls, are continuing the press forward on governance reforms. More work is being done regarding bringing greater transparency and accountability to the state budget process. Moving government closer to the people is another key notion reformers are exploring.
A major step toward achieving those goals was recently taken in Torrance. Led by What’s Next California and with support from California Forward and others, a “deliberative poll” was conducted. That consisted of 400 Californians, randomly selected to match the demography and ideology of California at-large, who gathered to participate in this historic event. Using balanced information about pressing issues, the participants respectfully discussed and debated California’s challenges. Education, taxation, prisons, dysfunctional government at many levels were all talked about and potential solutions tested.
What surprised many folks who participated and observed this extraordinary three-day event was the common ground that was discovered. When some of the sharp partisanship was stripped from the conversation, and when points of view were heard and respectfully discussed, space was created for trustworthy problem-solving. Watch the news for more on the results of the deliberative poll during the next few weeks.
So where does the 4th of July come into this?
The moment we have agreed upon to celebrate as the beginning of our democracy and independence, is a moment to pause and reflect on the California version. A democracy that was born in the middle of the 19th Century, reformed itself in the early 20th Century, made great strides in education, higher education, transportation, water supply, and economic development in the mid-20th Century, and sadly declined in the late 20th Century, now is being refreshed by the kind of Spirit of ’76 that we celebrate on the 4th of July and the Progressive Reform era of the early 1900s.
In other words, while we still have great challenges, we can meet those challenges, modernize the tools of governance and refresh our state’s national and world-wide leadership with widespread public participation that places a premium on civility and honest debate.
Fred Keeley is the elected Treasurer of Santa Cruz County. He is a member of the Leadership Council of California Forward, and a former Assembly Member representing the Monterey Bay area.