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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand at NPR West in California.

Today, we start a series called California in Crisis. If you live here, as I do, you are already witnessing just how bad things are; a $26 billion deficit and a state so broke, it's paying its bills with IOUs. Many Californians are wondering why the state is so dysfunctional.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports from right here in Culver City.

INA JAFFE: It's lunchtime in downtown Culver City. The sun is shining. The sidewalk cafes are crowded. So what better buzz kill could there be than asking people what they think about their state government.

Unidentified Woman #1: We should vote everyone who's there out because they get paid to do their jobs and they're not doing it.

Unidentified Man #1: Nobody would like the IOU, that's for sure.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's so depressing. I just know that there's a lot of nonsense going on, and we're screwed.

Unidentified Man #2: It's horrible…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: …our government, I think it's a travesty, to be honest.

JAFFE: The idea that California is ungovernable has been knocking around in political circles for about two decades. As the story goes, Republican Pete Wilson was thinking of leaving the United States Senate and running for governor. His campaign consultant, Stu Spencer, warned against it. California is ungovernable, he said.

Mr. PETE WILSON (Former Republican Governor, California): He was not right then and he's not right now.

JAFFE: Says former Governor Pete Wilson.

Mr. WILSON: Difficult, yes. Challenging, very. Not ungovernable.

JAFFE: That was Wilson speaking recently at a public affairs forum in Santa Monica. One of his explanations for the paralysis in Sacramento is that state lawmakers have been allowed to draw legislative districts. And they've generally protected incumbents of both parties. What those safe districts led to…

Mr. WILSON: Was not reasonable debate and dialogue. It led, in both parties, to people who could shout the loudest and be the most extreme.

JAFFE: As Wilson's successor, former Democratic Governor Gray Davis say if California is governable and you get a somewhat different answer.

Mr. GRAY DAVIS (Former Democratic Governor, California): Theoretically, it is governable. But as a practical matter, it's darn hard.

JAFFE: Davis faced some of the same problems the state faces 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 Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Davis says it's another form of direct democracy: the ballot initiative that makes governing California harder than it should be.

Mr. DAVIS: Because there have 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.

JAFFE: 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.

State Attorney General JERRY BROWN (California): Instead of 20 million people, we now have 37 million people. Instead of having a few million cars, we have over 30 million cars.

JAFFE: 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.

Mr. DON PERATA (Former Democratic State Senator, California): You know, right now we have freshmen controlling major committees. You don't get any smarter when you get sworn in.

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

Mr. JOHN GRUBB (Spokesman, Repair California): Unfortunately, our constitution, which has been amended 512 times since it was written in 1879, has created a system where nothing can get done.

JAFFE: John Grubb is the spokesman for Repair California, which was founded by a Bay Area business group. They want to rip up the rules for California government and hold a constitutional convention.

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

JAFFE: But that'll take a while. First, there would to be 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.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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