The Progressive Opportunity

"Laboratories of democracy" - that was what Louis Brandeis called state governments when the century was young and progressivism was slowly working its way from the hinterlands to the nation's capital. Before the New Deal, it was the states - Bob La Follette's Wisconsin, Al Smith's New York, Hiram Johnson's California - that pioneered such radical notions as social insurance, slum clearance and worker rights.

Today, it's hard to find a state that's a laboratory for anything other than retrenchment. From one statehouse to the next, the record of the past four years runs the center-right gamut from welfare cutbacks to prison construction, although some states - not ours - have also greatly expanded education funding.

The most obvious reason for the retrenchment is the '94 electoral blowout, which left the Republicans in control of 32 governors' offices, while the Democrats govern in just 17. Every one of the 10 largest states except Florida and North Carolina is in Republican hands, and the Republicans are widely expected to pick up Florida in the election three weeks hence. For their part, the Democrats are expected to lose even more states in the pending contest. The one silver lining, the only big state where they're expected to pick up a statehouse, is California - provided Gray Davis can hang on to his lead over Dan Lungren.

But California would be huge. Pundits frequently note that if the Democrats can maintain their hold on the Legislature through the election of 2000, and have Davis in the governor's chair, they can dominate the decennial reapportionment here, transferring 10 or more congressional seats from the GOP to the Dems, and with them, just possibly the control of the House of Representatives. But this gives short shrift to the greater significance of a Davis victory.

For in creating the only major government in America with Democratic control over both the legislative and executive branches, California voters would also be creating a government that could be open to progressive initiatives. The conditional mood is required here: No government of either party is going to reverse the law-'n'-order criminology of the past two decades. No Democratic administration is going to be anything other than solicitous to the corporate sector, so long as capital is mobile and politics dominated by big money.

And yet - a Davis administration working in tandem with a Legislature headed by John Burton and Antonio Villaraigosa (the two leftmost legislative leaders in California history) would certainly create a moment of progressive opportunity. Davis himself may be no great progressive, but his election would nonetheless alter the political climate. For the first time in 16 years, liberal Democratic legislators could actually propose reforms that stood a decent chance of enactment: Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl could draft sex-equity legislation; Senator Tom Hayden could push for greater environmental protections. For the first time in 16 years, California's progressive movements and think tanks could stop playing defense and actually advocate policy solutions of their own.

So could political columnists at weekly newspapers. Herewith, the Meyerson plan for our next governor:

Reversing Inequality

In the good old days of the New Deal Order, California was a bastion not only of economic opportunity but of relative economic equality. A highly unionized and industrialized state, with the first master plan opening higher education to all its high school graduates, California in the years of the postwar prosperity was a place where the benefits of the boom were felt across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Those days are now a distant memory at best. With its aerospace, auto and other middle-income industries either shrunken or vanished, its rate of unionization considerably reduced, and with burgeoning low-wage industries built around the new immigrant populations, California now ranks 46th among the states in its level of income equality. In 1980, the bottom 60 percent of California households pulled in 24.4 percent of all earned income in the state. In 1996, that figure had shrunk to 18.7 percent. The culprit here is declining wages for all but the wealthiest 10 percent of Californians. Between 1979 and 1997, according to the nonpartisan California Budget Project, inflation-adjusted wages fell for the bottom 90 percent of wage earners.

And it's not just wages and incomes that have been declining. Because so many Californians work for small businesses, in low-paying jobs, in poorly capitalized industries, the number of Californians with on-the-job benefits has been in free fall, too. Nationally, the percentage of residents covered by job-based health insurance is 66.1; in California, it's 56.9. Which is the main reason why the L.A. County health system is chronically on the brink of collapse.

Progressive policy wonks offer a range of discrete solutions to this complex of problems. The most basic is to raise the state minimum wage - and not just raise it, but index it to the cost of living. The arguments of the laissez-faire right to the contrary, the state and federal minimum-wage hikes of 1996 did nothing to deter job creation, which boomed even as wages for California's most low-paid workers increased.  

Jean Ross of the California Budget Project has long argued for creating a state Earned Income Tax Credit - the California equivalent of the federal program that offers cash benefits to full-time workers whose income is still below the poverty line. (She notes, however, that many a corporate loophole will have to be closed to create an EITC that will be revenue-neutral.) Other activists call for changes in the state's Healthy Families health-insurance program that would make it easier for low-income Californians to enroll their children, and for a massive increase in loan subsidies and bond and mortgage guarantees to spur the creation of more affordable housing.

But herewith an immodest proposal of my own to address several of these problems with one big fix: Create a statewide living wage. Instead of simply raising the minimum wage, borrow from several municipal ordinances the standard that workers must be paid $7.50 an hour with health benefits, or $8.50 an hour without. And don't apply the ordinance just to workers under contract to the state, as cities have applied it just to city-contract employees. Apply it to everyone working in California. As a necessary corollary, create a huge small-business buyers pool for health insurance, with so large a client base that small businesses could more easily afford to offer benefits. Nothing short of a solution this comprehensive can even begin to address our slide to Mississippian levels of inequality and working-class poverty.

Patching the Potholes

The California infrastructure that was once the marvel of the world - the freeways, the UC campuses, the nation's largest public school system - was built in the 1950s and 1960s. It is now falling apart.

In the '50s, the state spent $1 for every $100 of Californians' personal income on building the state - the schools, the roads, the sidewalks. Today, it spends 7 cents for every $100. State spending on the University of California, the California State Universities and the community colleges dropped by 22 percent between 1975 and 1994. And our total spending on K-12 schools as a share of the state's total wealth ranks us 46th among the states.

There's one major change in the state constitution that could arrest the crumbling of California. Under current law, cities, counties, school districts and the state must win two-thirds voter support for any bond issue to fund new classrooms, smoother roads and the like. An energetic campaign by the new governor - one that particularly mobilized the Latino community, which has demonstrated a willingness to fund new school construction surpassing that of any other group in the state - might just persuade the electorate to restore majority rule on these questions. Moreover, there's no better use for the kind of budget surplus the state ran this year than to devote it to capital improvements. And if the current private-sector credit crunch signals an approaching recession, state infrastructure projects can also serve as an economic stimulus.

Fixing the Schools

California schools need both radically more funding and radically more accountability, and neither one is politically possible without the other. In particular, no state can seriously claim to be interested in improving the quality of education while offering starting salaries to teachers that are far lower than those of virtually any other career. Teaching should not be a profession for which monastic self-denial is a prerequisite.

That said, there need to be clear standards of accountability for principals and teachers, based both on peer assessments and on the changes in their pupils' standardized test scores. Tenure should not be a lifelong security blanket for non-performing faculty and administrators. A Democratic administration in California should commit to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin's proposal to raise the state's per-pupil education spending to the national average over the next five years - provided that administrative and faculty accountability is established on campuses.

And what, pray tell, are the prospects that Governor Gray Davis and a Democratic Legislature will adopt such measures? Davis is a decent figure not known for his daring, but ambition alone (and no one's ever questioned Davis' ambition) will certainly spur him to try to rebuild the once-golden state. His close relations to (some would say, dependence on) unions certainly make him open to measures to reduce income inequity and rebuild the infrastructure - though how open, exactly, will likely depend on the determination of progressives in pushing their priorities. By the same token, his close relations to (some would say, dependence on) teacher unions might deter him from demanding greater classroom acccountability. Or his bona fides with the very same unions might just make him the right man to negotiate an increased-funding-for-greater-accountability trade-off.  

What's beyond dispute, sadly, is the uniqueness of the opportunity confronting California liberals should Davis and the Democrats win this November. Neither the federal government nor any other major state is likely to be in Democratic hands over the next two years. In the closing years of the century, as in its first two decades, California will be the proving ground for American progressives.


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