Why restructuring government is the only way to fix California

150 150 John Guenther

A week after Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal was released, details of his spending and revenue plans have begun to come into focus—along with the first wave of showdowns with those his cuts will most impact (with much of the early attention going to redevelopment agencies and enterprise zone developers).

There may not be widespread agreement on every one of the governor’s policy prescriptions, but his budget makes at least one thing startlingly clear: to grapple with the problems facing California—and many experts believe the state’s $25 billion shortfall is just the tip of the iceberg—putting off governance reform is no longer an option.

For the last few years, California Forward has been making this same point. We believe our state’s government, as it is currently organized, cannot meet the needs of everyday Californians – from teachers facing ever-more-crowded classrooms to employers working to do more with less. One-time spending cuts and short-term tax increases can only do so much. More fundamental, structural reform is the only solution. “State and local governments do not have sufficient resources to fund all program demands,” the governor said last week. “Absent long-term change, government will eventually be forced to shift funds from other important programs, including public safety, to pay for rising pension and health care costs.”

We are pleased to see the governor’s budget aims to do something about this, devoting an entire section to the importance of restructuring—and calling for “a vast and historic realignment of government services in California, reversing a 30-year trend that has seen decision-making and budget authority move from local government to the State Capitol.”

The details of this proposal will need to be worked out in the months ahead, but it is reassuring to see the administration acknowledging some hard truths about where our current governance system has failed—and why it must be reformed. “To the extent feasible,” the governor said last week, “Power [must be] returned to cities, counties, special districts, and school boards, allowing decisions to be made by those who have the direct knowledge and interest to ensure that local needs are met in the most sensible way.”

How to get there is the challenge, and the governor has been quick to acknowledge that restructuring will raise “significant issues” with a wide range of groups—a list that is certainly not limited to redevelopment agencies—whose concerns must be addressed.

In the last week, many news outlets have highlighted California Forward’s two-pronged approach to this problem, called “smart government”:

  • First, we have developed a plan. “The Path Forward” outlines the steps our state needs to take to stop our fiscal bleeding and make our government work again.
  • At the same time, we have kicked off a statewide conversation project called “Speak Up California” that aims to expand this discussion and hear from people all over the state. Over the next few months, while the debate continues in Sacramento, we are inviting civic leaders, business groups, non-profit advocates, elected officials, and other interested Californians to participate in a series of community gatherings to discuss how governance reform—restructuring, in particular—can help us improve our state’s beleaguered government. We will incorporate what we hear in these conversations into policy recommendations, which we will share with the new administration and other reform groups.

During his first few weeks in office, the governor has helped frame this debate. The conversation has begun. Join us as we talk with stakeholder groups, local officials, and regular voters about why reform is necessary—and how we can make sure it is done right.


John Guenther

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