As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Does The Next California Governor Matter?

Several weeks back, during the deepest throes of the budget crisis, I wrote that the problems of the state are not a matter of personality but process, and you can reason that out to understand that a change in the personalities without a concurrent change in process will accomplish absolutely nothing on reforming the state and getting a functional government again in California. This thought occurred to me again last night, as I sat in the press section during Gavin Newsom's "conversation with California" as part of his tour of the southern part of the state. Newsom's description of the challenges the state faces - and his solutions - gear more to the idea that a different person, dedicated to solving the same problems in a new way, can overcome any obstacle, rather than the reality that no individual under the current system of rules could possibly thrive. And while the San Francisco Mayor shows a recognition of the structural impossibility of California, his relative nonchalance about how to reform it shows he believes for more in himself to overcome the rules than the demonstrable history of the rules overcoming everyone in their path.

First, let's be clear that Newsom is running with someone else's platform. The first policy mentioned last night as a reflection of his record is the Healthy San Francisco effort toward universal care for the uninsured in his city. That is not his plan to tout, and the simultaneous description of it as a savior for the state's residents while cutting $100 million dollars from the city's Department of Public Health and programs aimed at the needy is nothing short of troubling.

"It's not that Healthy San Francisco is wrong its the mayor's obvious ..." (Tom Ammiano) pauses. "Look, he's running for governor and taking full credit for it. It's not true. The labor community, my office, community activists, health people -- some of the same people who are unhappy with him now -- worked with him on this. When he goes out there and claims full credit, that pisses people off, especially people who are dealing with [health care in the city] every day. ... The reaction is really based on the mayor boasting and overselling Healthy San Francisco." [...]

"Healthy San Francisco -- I think people should be very proud of it. I think it's going to meet its full potential. The rollout is going to be incremental and there's going to be little tweaks that it needs. But, you know, that's not the target [...] Unfortunately, it's getting tainted because of the mayor's boasting and overselling of it."

The neighborhood clinics at the heart of the Healthy San Francisco plan are at full capacity while funding is being slashed, and additional "woodworking" - residents coming out of the woodwork to seek services. The revenues aren't meeting the expenses, and the General Fund of the city, now facing a $590 million dollar shortfall (less per capita than Los Angeles'), has to make up the difference. As the economy continues to slow and the ranks of the unemployed swell, those at the bottom of the income ladder are already seeing service cuts. I would simply call it bad politics to put so much emphasis on a program you can barely claim ownership to and are cutting funding for at the same time as more services are desired. And this is sadly part of a pattern of the whole story being left out.

But let's set aside the issues for a moment. As focused as I am on process, I awaited Newsom's response to the inevitable questions about budget reform. He asserted support for a 50% + 1 threshold for the budget process, using the line "You need two-thirds of the vote to pass a budget, but only a simple majority to deny civil rights," referring to marriage equality. It's a good line, but he leaves out that he was shamed into changing his position after the initial proposal for a 55% threshold was slammed by just about everyone. The first instinct was to half-ass reform. There was also no explanation that there are two thresholds requiring two-thirds, the budget and tax increases, leaving his answer fairly vague, as it has been in the past.

But far worse than this was his flippant approval of Prop. 1A, the draconian spending cap that would effectively eliminate what amounts to half of the state school budget within a few years, and his dishonest rendering of the initiative as "a rainy day fund," without explaining how the rainy day fund is created. On the other ballot measures like 1C, 1D and 1E, which would privatize the lottery and raid voter-approved funds for children's programs and mental health, he gave a Solomonic "on the one hand, on the other hand" soliloquy and ended saying that he would be a bad spokesman for them.

This, then, is what needs to be kept in mind when Newsom urges a call for a constitutional convention. We see by his stances on the May special election what he would reasonably be expected to get out of that convention - a constitution that includes a "rainy day fund" created by a spending cap, coming at it from a right-wing perspective and ultimately resulting in a fake reform. This is essentially the position of Arnold Schwarzenegger, clueless media elites, bipartisan fetishists who assume without evidence the midpoint of any argument is automatically the best option, and most tellingly, the Bay Area Council, which makes perfect sense.

Meantime, the Schwarzenegger-sponsored political campaign in support of the six measures announced today an endorsement from the Bay Area Council, the business-centric public policy organization that is the impetus behind calls for a constitutional convention. Last week, Schwarzenegger made it quite clear that he supports the first convening of a state constitutional convention in some 150 years... a way to focus on multiple ideas for government reform at one time.

These two announcements certainly play to the idea of another "business vs. labor" narrative in California politics. Another possible fuel for that storyline comes in a $250,000 donation to the pro-budget measure committee on Friday by wealthy Orange County developer Henry Segerstrom. The donation from one of his companies is easily his largest campaign contribution in recent years, which saw smaller checks written to both the guv's 2006 reelection efforts and to the California Republican Party.

I support a Constitutional convention because I know what my principles are. I don't support mealy-mouthed calls for "reform" that are essentially corporate-friendly back doors to advance the interests of the powerful over the people.

Ultimately, Randy Shaw has this right - the people of California could elect Noam Chomsky, Warren Buffett or Howard Jarvis, and nothing would fundamentally change until the structures that restrict anyone in Sacramento from doing their jobs are released. And our assessment of who would be best to lead that reform should be based on deeds and not words.

If California’s future is measured by our education system, we are in deep trouble. And we are in this difficulty because the state’s Democratic Party and progressive activists have allowed right-wing Republicans to exert major control over the state’s budget.

I say “allowed” because there is no other explanation for elected officials and activists failing to put a measure on the November 2008 ballot removing the 2/3 vote requirement to pass a budget. Although state Republicans made their opposition to new taxes clear, progressives passed up a large turnout ballot whose voters would have approved such a reform. Passage of such an initiative would have avoided the billions of dollars in cuts we went on to face, with more cuts slated for future years [...]

If we have learned anything from the past months, it should be that putting money into state candidates will accomplish less than passing the budgetary reforms and tax hikes needed to return California to its leadership in education and other areas [...]

It’s time for the people to say “Yes We Can” to a new progressive future for California. Once the people lead, the politicians -- particularly those seeking their votes -- will follow.

It is senseless to discuss candidates for a race into a straitjacket, which is the current dress code for Sacramento. Anything less than fundamental reform will not solve the enormous set of problems the state faces - and it will take more than charisma, but an actual commitment, to make it happen.

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