"That year was a turning point," Cain notes. "That was the year the cave men got elected and the antitax people became much more aggressive about using the initiative." It was, of course, the year that the infamous Proposition 13 forever changed how the state was financed. Prior to Prop. 13, much of what local government did, including education, was funded through property taxes. Once that initiative rolled back property levies and essentially barred any future increases, cities and counties saw their fiscal base begin to collapse. The state — which was flush with cash in the late 1970s — stepped in and agreed to bail out local government and public schools.
That's one reason the size of the state budget has grown so dramatically in the past 30 years — with local property tax revenue all but frozen, Sacramento has had to take on the burden.
It was also the beginning of a political polarization that has only gotten worse as the needs of poorer and urban Californians have run up against the refusal of conservatives in the Central Valley and far south to even consider new sources of state revenue.
Solutions for resuscitating California's system are as diverse as the state's demographics. Ask progressives, and they'll say the extreme right-wing drags the rest of the state backward and that we have to get rid of the two-thirds majority and elect a Democratic governor. Ask conservatives, and they'll blame it on liberals ramming their ideals down everyone else's throat.
Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the Courage Campaign, an organization that was instrumental in building opposition against Prop. 8, says the two-thirds majority requirement to pass the state budget is a critical problem. "This lunacy of acquiring a two-thirds vote — it truly is lunacy," Jacobs says. "It is the biggest reason that our state is ... headed toward financial ruin. It's because the far right-wing of the Republican Party holds the budget hostage every chance they get. And it distorts the way the state works and creates the problems we're seeing."
But Olson, a dairy farmer from Tulare who's working alongside Republican former Assembly Member Bill Maze on an effort to "downsize California" by trimming the 13 coastal counties spanning Marin to Los Angeles, stands with Maze in saying that ditching the two-thirds majority rule would worsen California's predicament. "Any attempts to make it easier to pass the budget, I think, would be devastating," he says. "This state has a tremendous spending problem."
And in fact, it's not going to be easy to repeal the two-thirds majority rule. In 2004, a measure to make that change was walloped, losing by a 2-1 margin. A poll in January showed that 55 percent of the voters would support lowering the threshold for passing a budget — but not for raising taxes. Nobody likes gridlock, but a lot of Californians seem unwilling to trust the Democrats to run things by themselves.
So what if the Central Valley farmers got their way and kicked the coastal areas out of California? The easterners would reside in a state where 31 of 45 counties would be dominated by Republican voters. San Franciscans would reside in a state where 12 out of 13 counties had Democratic majorities. The coastal state would almost certainly have a Democratic governor and an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. There would be none of the current budget gridlock. The farmers might be a bit disappointed in their efforts at eliminating agricultural regulation: Prop. 2 would still have won in the inland counties, though by a much smaller margin.