Last week a St Thomas cabbie laughed at me when I was moaning about having to go home to California, and he had a good point - there are many nice things about SoCal, and the Golden State in general. We have great weather, a stunning coastline with equally majestic mountain ranges, inspiring Redwood groves, fertile soil, the global center of technology (Silicon Valley) and entertainment (Hollywood), and the best public university system in the world.
So why then is CA's state budget in the crapper? I think there are a couple reasons, both of which are legislatively self-inflicted, and both of which sound like good ideas on the surface but instead serve to destroy democratic representation. Firstly, a two-thirds majority is required to pass state legislation. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, instead it means that small group legislators can hold the entire state hostage, a tyranny of the minority where a budget supported by a majority is held in limbo.
This is bad, but pales in comparison the what I view as the main problem: ballot initiatives. Again, allowing the people of California to be directly involved in governance is a great idea - that's pure democracy, right? Instead, it's a mess, and one reason why our founding fathers went with representative democracy.
There are two big problems with ballot initiatives. First, the referenda are confusing and necessitate the reduction of complex issues down to a simple yes/no vote. In order to make an educated decision, each individual citizen must attempt to be an expert on the subject at hand, be it clean energy technology, education reform, tax law reform, etc. Would we want all Americans to vote on which design NASA should adopt for the new Shuttle replacement, or to decide our foreign policy towards North Korea? Could we trust the entire American voting populace to educate themselves on the ramifications of a change to affirmative action? No, we elect people to study an issue and then make an informed decision.
The second, and to my mind more insidious problem with ballot initiatives is that they completely circumvent any kind of campaign finance regulation. There's no point in trying to limit the degree to which lobbyists can pay/influence a particular legislator if they can just pay for their own ballot initiative - why both buying a legislator when you can buy a law directly? We had two examples of this in last week's election, Props 16 and 17 (luckily they both failed), which were very clear power grabs by PG&E and Mercury Insurance, the kind of which could never be achieved if the companies had to lobby the entire legislature. Technically there are limits as to how advertising for a ballot initiative can be paid for, and you're not supposed to pay people to collect the requisite signatures to get an initiative on the ballot, but these have not been adequately enforced. So, in the end, it's not "one person, one vote", it's "one million dollars, one vote".
There are other problems with the system, clearly, but the two items above I think have served to put California its current broke/indebted position. When California's economy was humming along happily, the uber-rich were able to slowly chip away at the state tax system, and so slowly the margin for error was eroded. Then whenever it was evident that some kind of reform or visionary legislation might be needed, a 1/3 minority of state senators was able to hamstring the process. Thus, progress was halted, even as special interests were able to buy specific ballot initiatives. Combine this with the foolishly-short term limits (a lifetime limit of 6 years in the General Assembly and 8 years in state Senate), by the time a legislature finally figures out how to actually govern, he's kicked out, and a new greenhorn has to learn the ropes all over again. I can't imagine the same policy catching on in corporate America, for example Steve Jobs being booted from AAPL after 8 years? Not happening.
Clearly the state (and nation) are increasingly polarized and reluctant to even engage in legitimate debate, but that's all the more reason to allow our legislators to actually do their job.