The Golden State's extreme makeover - Page 2

California isn't working any more. It's time to think about dramatic ideas for change
The "State of Jefferson" seal

Disparate viewpoints are just one reason for the wedge perpetually driven into California's gears. Polarized politics make it exceedingly difficult for the state Legislature to find common ground, resulting in gridlock.

Some of the reasons for that are quirks in the state Constitution and bad political decisions by the Legislature. California is the only state in America that requires a super-majority — two-thirds of both the Assembly and the Senate — both to pass a budget and to raise taxes. And in the past two decades, Democratic leaders in Sacramento have gone out of their way to draw Legislative lines that protect and maximize Democratic representation. That helps the majority party, but it's had a polarizing impact: the GOP districts tend to be much more conservative, and the lawmakers they send to the state Capitol have, at this point, all signed a pledge never to raise taxes.

"They believe if they compromise with the Democrats, it will be the end of their political careers," said state Sen. Mark Leno. "And in most cases, they're probably right."

But in a larger sense, the problem is inherent in the fractured makeup of this gigantic state. The truth is, Californians no longer share a vision for what the state is and ought to be. The Republicans have become a radical right minority that has the ability to paralyze state government, and the Democrats can't muster the statewide support to take control.

"The institutions that are premeditated on cooperation fall apart when you don't have a middle," noted U.C. Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, an expert on California politics. "We're at a point where people want to change the institutions."

With California's financial house torn asunder, 5,000 state-employee job losses in the works, tensions mounting over water shortages, and deep cuts to education and other critical services, it's no wonder Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself recently questioned whether the state is actually governable. In fact, the single point that seems to resonate across California's entire spectrum is that its government needs a major overhaul.

Historical context puts the current problems in a bit of perspective. As a recent report by the New America Foundation notes, the population of California today is roughly equal to the population of the entire United States at the end of the Civil War. "The Americans of 1870 lived in a nation of 37 states, each with its own independently-elected officials responsible for and accountable to their own geographically distinct political units" the report states. "The Californians of 2008 live in a 'nation' without states — a nation comprising more than a half dozen regions, each with its own economy, ecology, and political culture."

The foundation titled its report "Personalized full representation for California's regions." It recommends dividing the state into eight ministates and expanding the Legislature to a 360-seat unicameral body and electing members both directly and through proportional representation based on party.

"This would fundamentally change the formula of politics in California," said Steve Hill, director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation. It would, for example, encourage regional thinking — there would be a delegation elected from the Bay Area, one from the Central Coast, one from the Gold Country, etc. In effect, California would be treated as what it nearly is — a country — with broad issues addressed by representatives from what amount to states.

It makes a lot of sense. The current governing model was devised for a much smaller, less diverse, and less complicated state. And it worked remarkably well for a fairly long time. The rule that required a two-thirds majority to pass a state budget wasn't much of a problem before 1978.

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