Illustration by Juan Alvarado
California as it currently stands — and it
barely stands — is ungovernable. The fiasco of energy deregulation, the Legislature’s fiscal irrationality
during the dot-com bust, the $38 billion deficit that
followed and the election of the thoroughly unlikable Gray Davis reveal how ungovernable California has become. If the state had been spared one or two of these disasters, Californians might have been able to ignore, as they have for the past decade, the worsening condition of state government. But California is no longer so perfectly golden.
Because California is now ungovernable, it has fallen to the voters to exercise their sovereignty with the flawed tools that history and circumstance have given them. On October 7, Californians will take an unprecedented vote of “no confidence” in Governor Davis and the legislative apparatus for which he is, ironically, the ideal poster child. Although his fall would be mostly symbolic — only Davis goes; the other disasters remain — the recall campaign has already begun to change California’s rules of political engagement.
Californians, usually such casual citizens, are finding out, with a mixture of euphoria and vindictiveness, what a life with a political dimension means. It’s like nothing they’re used to. They’re used to watching, without much attention, a dispiriting parade of term-limited legislators and featureless constitutional officers. They’re used to accepting the subversion of their natural populism by the cynical initiative industry and its army of signature reapers. Mostly, Californians are used to waiting while others decide on the issues and candidates — waiting for big business, big labor and big government; waiting for the ideologues in the Legislature and the anti-government prophets on radio. And now, urgently and immediately, California citizenship matters. A year ago, when the governor’s race pitted the soulless Gray Davis against the inept Bill Simon, hardly a third of the Californians eligible to register and vote bothered to do either. Today, 78 percent of registered voters at least say they’re planning to vote.
A lot of their talk has been called crazy, mostly by the Eastern press, but Californians are no nuttier than Americans are generally. They’re just doing politics with what they have at hand, even if it’s in a rough way and with tools that are fallible.
It’s their state government that’s crazy, and not because of natural calamity, economic collapse or widespread corruption. California went crazy playing by the rules.
The imposition of Assembly and Senate term limits has relentlessly churned the political class in Sacramento since 1990 and routinely decapitated the Legislature’s leadership. The result is a more diverse body in terms of ethnicity, race and gender, and a body without a heart. There’s no time to cultivate the relationships that lead to compromise, legislators will tell you, and there’s harsh discipline for anyone who tries to make contacts across the aisle.
While legislators scurry through a game of term-limited musical chairs, the seats they take are virtually guaranteed to the Republican and Democratic parties. Reapportionment in 2001 concentrated voters in “safe” districts, assuring the parties that their candidates will be elected, too often in races where they run unopposed. Gerrymandering also made ideological discipline more effective, since the leadership can threaten wayward incumbents in primary races where party loyalists are the only voters who count. Depending on how you do the electoral math, about 24 of 173 state and federal legislative districts in California need a moderate, centrist candidate to win in an equally divided district.
Term limits and gerrymandering have given Californians a Legislature that is more easily led, more stridently partisan, less knowledgeable and generally incapable of compromise. Californians see the effect every spring in what has become the Legislature’s annual failure to pass a budget on time. The trigger is a constitutional requirement — shared with only two other states — that a 66 percent “supermajority” must approve the state budget. It’s argued by Republicans that the two-thirds requirement is a check on unrestrained spending, but that wasn’t the case by the end of the 1990s. State spending increased 40 percent in the past four years, as Democrats brokered with Republicans for the expansion of state programs by offering pork in Republican districts and billions of dollars in cuts in state taxes, including the vehicle-license fee. To make the whole process even more eccentric, a simple legislative majority can enact tax cuts and loopholes, a quirk that drives down taxes for favored payers and makes the state’s revenue structure ever more unmanageable.
One unintended consequence has been the transfer of local-government finances to an uncaring state Legislature. In the early 1990s, when California stumbled into recession, the Legislature began shifting revenues from cities and counties to state-funded programs. This decadelong raid has drained more than $6 billion in revenue from local governments, and another $845 million is going in the form of a “loan” from cities’ share of the vehicle license fee. This is supposed to be paid back, interest-free, by 2006, but no one in Sacramento can say where the money will come from.
Californians can’t say they didn’t want it that way. Since 1978 and the property-tax revolt, voters have been enlisted 118 times as a “fourth branch” of government to rewrite the state’s constitution and overrule its Legislature. They’ve set limits on public spending, restricted the range of items on which sales tax can be collected, established minimum funding for education, and constitutionally earmarked state revenues for specific public services. Budgeting by initiative has given the Legislature and governor the margins of California’s revenue to manage while denying them the use of the budgeting process to set broad goals for the future of the state.
The voters who made these rules over the past 25 years tended to be older, whiter, more racially anxious, and sometimes intoxicated by what they heard on talk radio. California has embraced an exuberantly public celebration of diversity everywhere except in the voting booth. Latinos have been the largest minority since 1970 and now represent about 32 percent of the state’s population. Asians make up 12 percent; African-Americans are 7 percent. Non-Latino whites, many of them the children of Okie and Arkie immigrants from the 1930s through the 1960s, account for about 48 percent. But at the polls, Anglos represent 73 percent of voters.
Ethnicity isn’t the only divide. Younger residents, regardless of ethnicity, who move to new fringe subdivisions are more likely than Californians generally to vote for candidates who want to limit state programs and services. These disparities reinforce a perception that some Californians, who just made it into the middle class and often with some help from state programs, are ready to pull up the ladder that could lead newer immigrants out of the barrio and the ghetto.
In fairness, California has grown so fast and become so diverse that Californians haven’t yet found how to manage the changes. They invited in an immigrant multitude to mow their lawns and tend their babies, and then they grew fearful of the immigrants’ fecundity and loyalty. They blame government for being too remote, and then they don’t send men and women like themselves to serve as their representatives. They’re quick to be resentful when prodded by the machinery of attack politics, and then they’re just as quick to be forgetful. They want every voter to be a ballot-box legislator, and then they don’t bother to vote.
Other states should pay attention. While the
reasons are not precisely the same, states as different as Oregon and Connecticut are showing the symptoms of ungovernability.
Poor, ungovernable California — a state with term limits, “supermajority” hurdles, easy recall laws, a crushing state deficit and a “no compromise” political culture. Hapless Governor Davis hardly had a chance
to escape the catastrophe of October 7. He was just
following the rules.
D.J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.