California's Politicians Point To Governing Paralysis

Pete Wilson i i

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, pictured here in 2007, recently said at a forum that one of the explanations for the paralysis in Sacramento is that state lawmakers have been allowed to draw legislative districts. J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images
Pete Wilson

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, pictured here in 2007, recently said at a forum that one of the explanations for the paralysis in Sacramento is that state lawmakers have been allowed to draw legislative districts.

J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images

Californians know how bad things are getting in their state: Their state faces a $26 billion budget deficit and is paying some some its bills with IOUs.

Increasingly, Californians are saying that their state has become ungovernable. But that idea has been knocking around in political circles for about two decades. As the story goes, then Sen. Pete Wilson, a Republican, was thinking of leaving the U.S. Senate and running for governor in 1990. His campaign consultant Stu Spencer warned against it and said: "California is ungovernable."

"[Spencer] was not right then, and he's not right now," says Wilson. "Difficult? Yes. Challenging? Very. Not ungovernable."

Reasons For Paralysis

At a recent public affairs forum in Santa Monica, Wilson said that one of the explanations for the paralysis in Sacramento is that state lawmakers have been allowed to draw legislative districts. And they've generally protected the incumbents of both parties. What those safe districts led to "was not reasonable debate and dialogue. It led, in both parties, to people who could shout the loudest and be the most extreme," Wilson said.

Wilson's successor as governor, Democrat Gray Davis, has a different answer as to whether it's governable.

"Theoretically, it's governable. But as a practical matter, it's darn hard," Davis says.

Davis faced some of the same problems that loom now: A weak economy, a massive budget gap and a fractious legislature. This led to his being recalled by the voters, who decided to replace him with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Davis says it's another form of direct democracy — the ballot initiative — that makes governing California harder than it should be.

"There've been a whole bunch of initiatives on the ballot, which say, 'This initiative will not require new taxes.' But what the initiative does not tell you is it will compete with education, health care, the environment and other claims on the budget. So there's no free lunch," Davis says.

Times, Laws Have Changed

In the 1970s, people didn't ask if California was governable. State Attorney General Jerry Brown was governor then. The state is just more complex now, he says.

"Instead of 20 million people, we now have 37 million people," Brown says. "Instead of having a few million cars, we have over 30 million cars."

Not only have times changed, so have the laws. Brown never had to deal with a legislature confined by California's strict term limits. Former State Senate Leader Don Perata says that lawmakers are thrown into complex issues without the experience to deal with them.

"Right now, we have freshmen leading major committees," Perata says. "You don't any smarter when you get sworn in."

And it requires a two-thirds vote of those lawmakers to pass a budget. California also requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.

Is A Constitutional Convention The Answer?

Repair California, founded by a Bay Area business group, wants to rip up the rules for California government and hold a constitutional convention.

"Unfortunately, our constitution, which has been amended 512 times since it was written in 1879, has created a system where nothing can get done," says John Grubb, Repair California's spokesman.

"We're just very skeptical that legislature at this point is able to reform itself. We think change can't come from Sacramento, but change must come to Sacramento."

But that would take a while. First would come ballot measures authorizing the convention. That could happen next year. If those passed, the delegates would meet the year after that. Then the year after that, the changes would be put to a vote of the people. But Californians have gotten used to waiting.

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