Most of the discussion at California Forward’s first regional dialogue in Santa Barbara focused on what good government looks like—and how the state’s current governance system, built nearly a century ago, can be reformed to reflect the shared values of today’s Californians.
In his opening remarks, Fred Keeley, a member of California Forward’s Leadership Council—and former Speaker Pro Tempore of the California State Assembly—made the case that the state’s conundrum today is not so different from the one it faced a hundred years ago, when reformers also had to overcome dominant special interests and a dysfunctional Legislature to solve the state’s problems. In 1911, after years of watching the railroad barons twist government to their own narrow ends, voters flexed their political muscle by approving a series of measures that radically modernized the tools of government, using the referendum and initiative process to wrest back control of the state.
Those same tools of government are now widely viewed as part of the problem, Keeley acknowledged, but there are still important lessons to be learned from California’s early reformers. “The idea here is to do the same thing they did,” Keeley told those gathered for the meeting. “There is a genuine desire for the state to succeed, and what you are part of today has a long, proud tradition that goes back to when our state was founded—to a time when people realized their government was broken, the tools needed to be modernized, and the people of the state wanted to tone down the partisanship and ratchet up the optimism.”
Several common themes emerged from the day-long conversation about what a more efficient government would look like:
Accountability and transparency were mentioned again and again, and many participants expressed a desire for a smaller, more understandable government. As one speaker put it: “What is government accountable for? Results—tangible results, and those results need to be publicized in way that is clear and concise.”
Clarifying government’s roles and responsibilities was also a much-discussed objective, and there was widespread support for making regions and municipalities more autonomous, more financially independent, and more fiscally responsible. Said one participant: “We need to end local government’s dependency on cranking up the sales tax as its only source of revenue. Car dealerships and shopping malls are not a growth plan. There needs to be a new fiscal strategy for stable, long-term municipal finances.”
Continued engagement with voters will be the key to any such changes, many participants agreed. Improved access to the political process and increased voter participation were at the top of the list for future action. “We’d like the government to be more responsive. We want it to be more accessible, and we’re trying to make it more so,” as one participant put it. “But to do that, we’re going to need more tools in our toolbox.”
Justin Ewers is a project manager at California Forward.