Advancing a Free Society

Where California Went Wrong, By George

Friday, December 2, 2011

For 50 years, the Los Angeles Times’ George Skelton has studied and reported back to the public on the intricacies of California and national politics. Few people are better qualified to discuss what ails the policies and policymakers that define the Golden State.

So when someone of Skelton’s pedigree offers a long and thoughtful discourse on where California (Sacramento, in particular) went off the rails during his half-century in the business, it’s worth a look-see.

Skelton sees the following “major game-changers” as altering the state’s landscape not for the better (and I’m quoting his column verbatim):

n One person, one vote. That was the U.S. Supreme Court decision that forbade state legislatures from using the federal system: one house based on population, a second on geography, which had worked well in California. The ruling sent many skilled rural senators packing in 1966. We've never recouped and now have two essentially similar houses.

n Full-time Legislature. Voters agreed in 1966 to professionalize the Legislature. It was a good move at the time. But with longer sessions, the lawmakers ultimately lost their sense of urgency.

n Ronald Reagan. His drumbeat that "government is not the solution, government is the problem" promoted anti-government cynicism and paved the way for Proposition 13.

n Proposition 13. The price for reduced residential property taxes was loss of local control to the state and a required two-thirds legislative vote for any tax increase. The practical result today is a lack of badly needed tax reform.

n Political "reform." Running for governor the first time, Jerry Brown sold us on a plan to end special interest influence in Sacramento. Right. It banned lobbyists from spending more than $10 a month wining and dining legislators. So now they fork out $10,000 for cheap snacks at a campaign fundraiser. This ended a lot of friendly socializing and legislative bonding.

n Term limits. In 1990, disgusted voters — tired of Speaker Willie Brown and offended by Capitol corruption — clamped tight term limits on legislators. Big mistake. Some bums were forced to hit the road. But valuable leaders were booted, too. And promising future leaders never had the time to develop.


I don’t agree with Skelton’s choices of Reagan and Prop 13 – without the man’s ascent in the mid-1960s and the ballot measure’s vox populi triumph in 1978, there is no Reagan Revolution come 1980. California, America and the Free World would be entirely different places.

However, I do agree (and I can hear my friends on the right groaning) that term limits have been a net-minus for California.

Part of the reason is what Skelton cites: skilled leadership has vanished. He could have added that less experienced legislators are in over their head (cases in point: former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and the current head of that chamber, John Perez. Both have proven to be woefully inadequate during the course of “Big Five” budget negotiations. Bass was too temperamental; Perez is too beholden to labor).

Moreover, with term limits comes an over-reliance on special interests that, naturally, have a narrow vision and unimaginative staff aides who suffer from an inside-Sacramento mentality that embraces private-sector and market-driven ideas with all the enthusiasm of a six-year-old asked to take a swig of castor oil.

One thing Skelton doesn’t note, and I wish he had: the change in media coverage of politicians and state policy during his time in Sacramento.

I worked in the Governor’s Office, in Sacramento, in the 1990s – a time when out-of-market television stations shuttered their Capitol bureaus. Too much money to operate, they argued, and (they wouldn’t publicly admit to) Sacramento was just too darn dull compared to, say, a slow-speed car chase or the latest drama in Michael Jackson’s life and times.

A decade later, California’s print media changed the terms of their working relationship with state government. Again, bureaus closed. Again, cost-cutting was cited.

And where did those print reporters and their institutional knowledge go? Ironically, many found a safe landing in . . . public relations or state government, spinning or doing battle with their former profession.

Granted, there was a spike in media interest when Arnold Schwarzenegger sashayed into town in late 2003. However, the Arnold media circus was more about the Governator’s personality than his ideas. And as his tenure came to an end, so did the interest in Sacramento.

And today, the depth of coverage of Sacramento affairs is at a sad ebb.

The point is: the public ultimately holds the power of balance in its hands. Voters send elected officials to Sacramento; thanks to direct democracy, voters will have to decipher and then decide upon the demolition derby of tax initiatives coming their way next November, plus other weighty decisions that present-day Sacramento is ill-equipped to handle. Thus a need to better inform the electorate – especially one with a notoriously short attention span.

This puts California’s media in an awkward spot: choose to give more attention to the decision-making in Sacramento, unsexy as it is; or, stay the present course and stand by idly (and thus acting as an abettor) as the Golden State continues on its current path as a nation-state in a chronic, grinding decline.

Here’s hoping the media view themselves as part of both the problem and the solution in terms of what ails California. And, ideally, they come to this realization while there’s still such a creature as a Sacramento press corps.

Otherwise, who knows what they’ll say about us 50 years from now?