Mining For Some Improvements To California’s Government

Thursday, January 24, 2019
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On this date, 171 years ago, California took the first step from unexplored territory to economic colossus with the discovery of gold in the tailrace (still visible today) of a sawmill in present-day Coloma, about an hour’s drive northeast from Sacramento.

The man who made that discovery, James Marshall, didn’t have the same luck as modern-day California prospectors like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders, respectively, of Apple, Facebook, and Google).

After Marshall made his discovery, his co-workers deserted the mill operations to seek their own fortunes—the land having become overrun with new arrivals seeking instant wealth in the fabled “gold rush” that brought the world to the West Coast. (California’s population grew from 20,000 at the end of 1848 to 100,000 just one year later.)

The man who stumbled upon gold flecks in a stream would later try his hand at a different California source of wealth—wine. But that didn’t work out, thanks in part to high taxes. One last failed attempt at gold mining left James Marshall penniless. He lived out his final years in a small cabin about a dozen miles east of where he made his great discovery.

California doesn’t come to a halt to remember the event that put the gears of the nation-state in motion. But it seems like an apt time to reflect on the quality of state government (the connection: John Augustus Sutter Sr., son of the millowner who employed James Marshall, was the founder and planner of the City of Sacramento).

On this anniversary, why not consider a few suggestions for improving California government? These might include the following:

Rein in the State Attorney General. California’s “top cop” also is responsible for writing the titles and summaries of state ballot measures. In the Golden State, that makes for bad politics.

Last year, state attorney general Xavier Becerra’s office applied the following description to a measure that would repeal increases in gas taxes and automotive fees: “Eliminates recently enacted road repair and transportation funding by repealing revenues dedicated for those purposes.” A Superior Court judge stepped in and offered a more nuanced approach.

Other examples of the AG politicizing the system? In 2005, then–attorney general Bill Lockyer attached this description to Proposition 76 (it proposed a cap on budget growth): “Changes state minimum school funding requirements . . . permitting suspension of minimum funding, but terminating repayment requirement, and eliminating authority to reduce funding when state revenues decrease.”

It wasn’t Lockyer’s first stab at ballot tampering. In 2000, he applied the following to Proposition 38 (it proposed a statewide school voucher system): “state-funded private and religious education.” That same year’s Proposition 22, California’s “Defense of Marriage Act” was retitled “Limits on Marriage.”

The fix: hand over ballot title and summary authority to a non-partisan source—say, a citizens’ commission or the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Merge the Treasurer and Controller. At present, California has eight state officers on the ballot every four years (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state controller, state treasurer, insurance commissioner, and state superintendent of public instruction).

The question: is there an opening for California to do some consolidation?

My suggestion: combine the offices of state treasurer and state controller.

Both are fiscal/financial posts (the treasurer is the state’s head banker; the controller is the state’s CFO). As proof that there’s room to add to the portfolio, state treasurer Fiona Ma has waded into California’s affordable housing dilemma.

One other candidate for downsizing: California’s superintendent of public instruction (SPI).

In 27 states, the state board of education chooses the chief school officer; in 17 other states, the governor does the choosing. Thirty states also have a cabinet-level education secretary. California once did, but that office was abolished in 2011.

My suggestion: do away with the largely ceremonial office of SPI (good luck finding superintendent Tony Thurmond in the current school standoff in Los Angeles) and recreate the cabinet post.

From “Lite” to Vice (Governor). While we’re on the topic of executive offices, what to do about California’s lieutenant governor—a job that’s not inconsequential, as the so-called “lite guv” is first in line in gubernatorial succession (as well as acting governor when the elected governor leaves California airspace)?

The options: pare or pair. Either eliminate the office—and make the state attorney general first in line to succeed the governor—or couple the governor and lieutenant governor as running mates.

Historically, the two offices have embodied the notion of “frenemies.” Former governor Jerry Brown rarely worked with lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, although both are Democrats. Newsom, now in Brown’s job, may or may not interact with the current lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis.

Twenty years ago, a feud between then-governor Gray Davis and then–lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante prompted the governor’s office to take away Bustamante staffers’ parking places near the State Capitol. Convert the two candidacies into one ticket and maybe such shenanigans will end.

Term Limits. Soon to conclude its third decade, California’s experiment with term limits has produced mixed results.

The good news: there’s no longer one dominant individual lording over the state legislature. (Proposition 140, which implemented term limits in 1990, was designed with “Ayatollah of the Assembly” Willie Brown in mind.)

The bad news: legislative leaders lack institutional knowledge. Sacramento has become a game of “blackout bingo,” with lawmakers jumping from office to office. (Former state treasurer John Chiang, who tied for fourth place in last summer’s gubernatorial primary, also served as state controller and on the California Board of Equalization in the two decades leading up to that run.)

At present, California legislators can serve a total of 12 years—the entire time in the state assembly or state senate, if they so choose. I’d push that out to 16 years. And I’d give the statewide officeholders the option of a third four-year term if they’d like (at present, they’re limited to two).

But I’d add one condition: after 16 years in the legislature or 12 in a statewide office, incumbents must take four-year “time-out” before running for another post in California.

Salaries. Finally, some financial restraint.

Gavin Newsom didn’t just win the top office in California last fall. He also received a $51,000 raise. (California governors make a smidge over $200,000 a year.)

The quibble here isn’t what Newsom is making. It’s his aides’ salaries. The governor’s legal affairs secretary makes $200,004 a year. His judicial appointments secretary draws a $185,004 salary. The chief deputy in the governor’s legal affairs shop makes $184,992 annually.

Should this team pull up stakes and relocate to the White House, they’d be looking at lower wages (here’s a list of Trump White House salaries, with $179,700 the max).

Two suggestions: keep salaries below the presidential upper limits; and list all salaries in the governor’s office on the governor’s website (including the source of funding, whether the governor’s operating budget or some other executive office).

Will any of these changes see the light of day? Probably not.

But I like to think there’s still gold in them thar hills.