What Passes for Victory in California

California CrackupMark Paul, one of the authors of California Crackup, addresses the state budget and the low, low bar for success in his recent blog post, “Defining Failure Down.”

Paul writes: “One of the consequences of having the least functional governing system in the world is that the bar for determining what constitutes success gets set very low. Even the most ordinary and trivial things in California get counted as a victory.

A case in point is George Skelton’s column in the Los Angeles Times, triumphantly announcing “that Proposition 25 [the majority-vote budget measure] worked. California’s Capitol has become less dysfunctional.”

Yes, the Legislature and governor have enacted a budget before the July 1 start of the fiscal year, a rare event in Sacramento over the last quarter of a century. It’s good to have a budget in place as the fiscal year begins. It lets the state borrow the operating cash it needs and avoids the messy business of delaying payments to vendors and local governments that happens when a budget isn’t enacted before the fiscal year begins. …”

Read the full post on Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ website, The California Fix.

A 30-Year-Old Can of Worms

California Crackup cover imageNow that he’s back in the Governor’s office, Jerry Brown will have to revisit an issue he championed 30 years ago, but is now a major source of California’s budget woes: Proposition 13. In a recent story about Brown’s return to office, the New York Times interviewed Joe Mathews, co-author of California Crackup, on how the state will drive revenue to local governments, which have struggled financially ever since Prop 13 capped property taxes at 1 percent and required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to raise taxes. Brown’s proposed plan to give local governments more authority to raise taxes to pay for their own programs makes Mathews hopeful. “The optimist in me thinks [Brown] is doing this as a way to open up the can of worms,” Mathews told the Times. “This is the politically wisest and politically easiest way to unwind this monstrous system. Everyone likes local government.”

In a recent editorial for The California Fix entitled “The road to budget hell,” Mathews’ co-author Mark Paul wrote about the “four big pieces that paved the road to budget damnation” and what makes this year’s fiscal crisis different from years past. Paul points out that it wasn’t simply the lost tax revenue that made Prop 13 so damaging, but the way it transformed how California governs itself. “Compared to other states, California local governments spend more than average, despite local revenues much lower than average,” he says. “The state has made up the difference, deepening its own budget problems and… skewing priorities.” Mathews and Paul will be watching closely to see how Brown untangles this mess. Stay up to date by visiting their website, www.californiacrackup.com, or following them on Twitter, @CalifCrackup.

A Tricky Proposition

Before you vote on November 2, watch this video segment on KCET, Southern California’s PBS affiliate, featuring the authors of California Crackup, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul. The authors examine the proposition system—what some have called the fourth branch of government in California—and argue against the conventional wisdom that giving people more control over the legislative process is always a good thing.

Because there are virtually no restrictions on what can be the subject of a proposition, we have the initiative process to thank for special laws permitting cash prizes for boxing matches and banning the eating of horse meat. Watch the video for a clear explanation of why there are so many props on the ballot, and where we go from here.

Want to hear more from Mathews and Paul? Listen to this episode of Straight Talk with Bill McEwen, in which together with the host, the authors try and fix California.

The End of the Line for California

As Californians file into the voting booth this November and try to decipher the complicated list of propositions and initiatives, many will think, “There has got to be a better way.” In this interview with KQED’s This Week in Northern California, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, authors of California Crackup, discuss some of the proposals in their book for reforming the state’s election system and ending the annual gridlock in Sacramento. We have “finally reached the end of the line,” they argue, and are left with a system that “doesn’t work because it can’t work.” Watch the 6-minute video below:

You can hear more from the authors on the UC Press Podcast.

California’s Improper Founding: New Podcast with Joe Mathews and Mark Paul

California Crackup cover In this UC Press podcast, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul reveal that in the slapdash political climate of the Gold Rush, California modeled its constitution after Iowa’s. The reason? It was short.

Mathews and Paul, the authors of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, go on to explore the improvisational origins of the state, the political impact of California’s changing demographics, and unanticipated consequences of the infamous Proposition 13. But enough of the bad news; what are the authors’ prescriptions for change?

Listen to the podcast to find out:

Read Mark Paul’s interview with SF Appeal on why Californians shouldn’t vote for governor.

A Call to Action for California

Following the low voter turnout for California’s June 8 primary election, Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup, wrote, “The real story of the Tuesday elections, it seems to me, is that voters have given up on believing in democracy under California’s current electoral system.” In the California Progress Report last Friday, Peter Schrag, author of Not Fit for Our Society and California, called Paul’s commentary “[t]he most trenchant analysis of this month’s primary election results”.

Voters feel alienated, says Paul, because of the state’s ailing system of government, which he and co-author Joe Mathews describe as three separate, conflicting systems that impede progress while California’s problems keep building. As Paul and Mathews discuss in this California Crackup book trailer, the state’s problems—failing schools, overburdened prisons, water crises, and ever-deepening debts—are huge, but not insurmountable. They propose clear, concrete ideas for how to address these problems, and to restore voters’ confidence and bring them back to the polls.

Mark Paul: The voters speak with their silence

Mark Paul

Mark Paul, co-author, with Joe Mathews, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, responds to California’s state primary election on Tuesday. This post also appeared on Paul and Mathews’ blog, The California Fix.

The voters speak with their silence

In the wake of the June 8 primary, the papers today are full of stories telling us what the voters said on Tuesday. To which I have to ask, what voters?

The real story of the Tuesday elections, it seems to me, is that voters have given up on believing in democracy under California’s current electoral system. Seventy-five percent of California’s voters—12,749,727 of them, twelve times the number who voted for Meg Whitman, six times the number who voted for Prop 14—kissed off the election.

Despite being bombarded with a couple of hundred million dollars worth of political advertising, they could not be moved. The triumphant eMeg spent about $74 for every vote she received. (It’s a measure of how brain dead California’s media have become that Whitman—a politician who spent in excess of $80 million running against an unknown opponent but managed to win fewer votes than the feckless Bill Simon won running against the popular mayor of Los Angeles in the 2002 primary, when California had 1.8 million fewer registered voters— is today being described as the owner of a “powerful, well-financed machine.”) But what’s true of Whitman is true of the system as a whole. It cost all the players in the political system about $50 for every voter who turned out Tuesday.

There’s a clear message here to California’s political class, the candidates and the armies of consultants, spinmeisters, and message polishers: Californians aren’t buying your shit anymore.

Now some will say that the turnout was so low because there was no high-profile Democratic contest for governor. But though it was certainly a factor, that can’t explain the extraordinarily low turnout in many areas of the state—the Inland Empire, the San Joaquin Valley—where Republicans dominate. The turnout in Riverside County was 16.5 percent, and only 20.9 percent among Republicans. It was 20.5 percent in Orange County, and only 27.6 percent for Republicans. It was 19.8 percent in San Bernardino, and only 26.5 percent for Republicans. In the parts of the state most alienated from the status quo in Sacramento and most attended to in the election, voters have turned off.
And you cannot blame them. Almost no one in California’s political class is speaking openly and honestly about the state’s constitutional crisis, what Joe and I call the California Crackup. The only thing on the ballot that even attempted to speak to the need for change was Prop 14, the jungle primary measure.

But even Prop 14 was more symptom than cure. Pressed onto the ballot by Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, then state senator, in a illegal bit of log-rolling in last year’s budget compromise, Prop 14 never received any scrutiny in the Legislature and never got the kind of informed discussion in the campaign that should accompany throwing out two hundred years of experience in America with party nominations for office.

Indeed, Prop 14 embodies the worst of the California system. Put on the ballot in a dirty deal necessitated by the supermajority shackles on the Legislature, Prop 14, which most political scientists believe will not do the things its proponents promises, changes the constitution despite having been approved by only 12 percent of registered voters.

That is exactly how California got broken. And until California’s political class begins addressing the need to fix the system, expect the voters to stay home.

–Mark Paul

How to Fix California

Joe Mathews. Photo: Ringo Chiu

Budget crises, failing schools, unemployment—it’s easy to point out California’s problems, but harder to pinpoint what exactly is wrong, how it happened, and what can be done to fix it. With state primary elections on the horizon, these questions are at the heart of debate.

“California doesn’t work because it can’t work”, say Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, the authors of California Crackup. They explore the origins of the state’s problems, and how its “inflexible” system of direct democracy and the effects of Proposition 13 have contributed to the crackup.

Mark Paul. Photo: Jessica Pettyjohn

But there is hope. As the lead blogger at NBC’s Prop Zero blog, Mathews examines central issues in California politics,with an eye to change, and Paul and Mathews propose fixes to help get the Golden State back on track.

As a guest last week on KQED’s Forum, Mathews and other guests discussed California’s initiative process with Michael Krasny. Listen here.