Why has California seemingly become ungovernable? And what can and should be done about it? Those concerns were tackled in “The People’s Will: Reforming the Way We Govern California.” The UCLA Roundtable Discussion featured Andreas Kluth, U.S. West coast correspondent for The Economist magazine, and a panel of California experts.
Sparking the discussion was a special report Kluth authored, which appeared in the April 23 issue of the magazine. Noting the inability of the state to pass timely budgets, even in good financial years, the report characterized California as “an experiment in extreme democracy gone wrong,” especially the direct democratic process of the state’s ballot initiatives.
Opening the roundtable event, Kluth described how initiatives were introduced in California 100 years ago to prevent corruption, and were used sparingly until Proposition 13, the property-tax-cutting measure, was passed in 1978; but afterward, collecting signatures for initiatives became “an industry,” fueled by well-financed special interests.
He proposed “reforming the initiative process and the legislature.” In some states, Kluth noted, the legislature has the power to repeal initiatives when negative consequences result. One way to improve the legislature itself, he said, would be to increase the number of representatives.
J.R. DeShazo, UCLA associate professor of public policy and the director of the Lewis Center, moderated the discussion that followed.
Panelists included: Robert Hertzberg, former speaker of the California Assembly and now co-chair of California Forward, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization seeking restructuring and other reforms of state government; Daniel J.B. Mitchell, UCLA professor emeritus of management and public policy and editor of California Policy Options; and Carol Whiteside, partner of California Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm focusing on good governance.
“We need to create a new model of government that’s nimble, highly democratic, and thinks big, which means thinking small,” said Hertzberg, presenting one goal of his organization. “With smaller units [of government] you get the benefits of big government and the human condition of social connectedness.”
Mitchell suggested that given the governing problems of Washington D.C.’s elected representatives, “maybe direct democracy is not the problem...I would focus reform on the governor...In California, the governor is held accountable but doesn’t have authority to make good decisions.” He said one step would be to institute a non-partisan state primary.
For Whiteside, many issues will be solved “when as many people vote in elections as vote in ‘American Idol,’” She suggested giving people a forced choice, such as “Do you want to raise taxes or see 50 kids in a classroom?” And, she suggested that cynicism needs to be replaced by community concern, citing Governor Brown’s 2011 inaugural address.
“He asked people to think first as Californians and second as individuals. I think we’ve lost a sense of responsibility to community,” she said. “It’s hard to restore that, but that’s essential.”
This event was jointly presented by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the UCLA Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center of the Luskin School, the UCLA Anderson Alumni Network, and The Economist.