California has eight statewide elected officials, which is almost 1 ½ times the national average. The Golden State’s FY 2014 budget allots over $2.7 billion to cover the costs of those offices, plus the two state tax boards.
However, not all statewide positions are created equal. Nor is there much evidence that Californians get more value, relative to other states, for having such an expansive executive system. While the State Controller has budget authority to spend $191 million and employ almost 1,400 positions, the Lt. Governor’s office has just $1 million to spend and a mere six staffers.
If nothing else, the status quo benefits term-limited politicians in their game of political musical chairs. On average, six current/former state officeholders (State Assembly members, State Senators and statewide officials) run for a statewide office each election (excluding incumbents seeking re-election). A disparity becomes apparent when we factor in term limits. From 1966 to 1990, the year Californians voted for term limits, on average, four state officeholders sought a statewide office. Since 1994, the average has more than doubled, to nine.
The final good governance “Sacramento Spotlight” examines how best to structurally reform the executive branch of California’s government.
Consolidate the Board of Equalization and Franchise Tax Board: California is the only state to have two distinct organizations that handle major taxation responsibilities. California should consolidate the two organizations into one “California Department of Revenue” managed by an elected four-member California Tax Commission. The Tax Commission would be chaired by the newly created California Chief Financial Officer (see below) and the Department of Revenue would be charged with overseeing all activities related to the implementation and collection of the state’s taxes.
Consolidate the State Controller and State Treasurer: California’ State Controller is, in essence, the government’s chief accountant; the State Treasurer, its chief investment officer. Together, these two offices (combined budget of $220 million) serve as California’s chief fiscal officer. California is just one of six states that have both offices. Four states get by with just an elected Controller; 31 states have just an elected Treasurer. California should combine both offices’ roles into one body similar to the Florida Department of Financial Services. As described by Florida’s constitution, the state’s Chief Financial Officer “shall serve as the chief fiscal officer of the state, and shall settle and approve accounts against the state, and shall keep all state funds and securities.” Added bonus: Florida’s CFO manages all of its expansive duties on a $12.1 million budget – just 6% of California’s combined Controller/Treasurer outlay.
Eliminate the “Lite Guv”: California’s lieutenant governor – in Sacramento-speak, the “lite guv” – is arguably the least important position in state government, with real powers limited to a few board slots and interim control of the state while the governor is traveling beyond California airspace. Back when a governor being out of town meant more than a day’s travel to return to the Golden State, this office had significance (in 1965, then-Gov., Pat Brown was stuck in Greece during the Watts Riots). Today, technology and improved travel eliminates this problem. Even the current Lt. Governor, Gavin Newsom, thinks this position is useless. While 45 states have “lite guvs”, California and but 16 other states nominate and elect their governors and lieutenant governors separately. Meanwhile, 21 states run the two on a single ticket; five nominate the two positions independently, but then elect them on a single ticket. In two states, the state Senate President Pro Tempore automatically becomes the Lt. Governor.
The suggestion: California should drop the office, becoming the sixth state to not have a Lt. Governor. Doing so, though, requires a new succession plan. In three of the five states without a “lite guv” (Arizona, Oregon, and Wyoming), the state’s Secretary of State succeeds the governor. In the other two (Maine and New Hampshire), the state Senate President is second in line. For California, the State Attorney General is the natural choice as a successor—in the event of a gubernatorial vacancy, the A.G. becomes interim governor until the next regularly scheduled statewide election.
Eliminate the Superintendent of Public Instruction: As the executive in charge of California’s Department of Education, the SPI supposedly oversees California’s K-12 education policy (at an annual cost of approximately $60 million to taxpayers). In reality, though, education policy is dictated by the State Legislature and the Governor’s Office. To the office’s critics, the SPI is seen as an extension of the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers. And those two unions/lobbies are more than represented already under the Golden Dome. California should abolish the Superintendent’s job and place the Department of Education's responsibilities in the governor’s and counties’ portfolios. California public schools wouldn’t even know the difference.
Amend Ballot Initiative Title and Summary Writing: To help eliminate the overt politicization of the ballot initiative title/summary writing conducted by the Attorney General, a system of checks and balances needs to be imposed. The Attorney General should appoint three Ballot Initiative Commissioners - one a Democrat, one a Republican, the other an independent - to oversee the Department of Justice's Ballot Initiative Office. Under this plan, ballot titles and summaries would only move forward with the unanimous consent of the three commissioners.
Structural reform is not a new idea in California. A government that remains static, while good for the current lot of politicians, becomes stale and doesn’t best serve its citizenry. Books, like California Crackup by Joe Matthews and Mark Paul, government commissions, like Governor Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review, and organizations like California Forward have explored many different variations of this topic.
Regardless, the retreading of a long-discussed topic is still important; California’s structural governance needs reform to improve efficiency. As the State Legislature preps to return to session next month, keep in mind how simple, but drastic good governance reforms could improve the state substantially.
Check-out the previous “Sacramento Spotlight”: Comprehensive Good Governance Reform Part 2 – Eliminating Term Limits
Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno
*Note: This article was edited on March 26. The original post suggested that all statewide elections should be non-partisan elections on the November ballot (keeping partisanship for the June primary). Upon further examination, such a reform could likely lead to more and greater problems than it would solve. Instead, all statewide elections should be partisan as non-partisan races mask important policy signals and preferences of the candidates, particularly in low information down-ballot races.*