Reformers Eye November 2012 For Fixing California Governance Crisis

Efforts to reform California’s system of government — a system that virtually no one denies is dysfunctional — have been percolating for the last few years, but have never actually reached the boiling point. Now, reformers hope they can finally turn up the heat in time for the November 2012 ballot.

Getty/David McNew
To do so will take money, a clear and coordinated message, and a way to overcome the opposition of political forces that thrive on the status quo.

One major proposal was unveiled a few days ago, but others could be coming… and they’ll need to do so soon: political experts point out that the jump zone is rapidly approaching for landing on the November 2012 ballot.

Tackling the Whole Enchilada: The bipartisan fix-government folks at California Forward have more than one big challenge on their hands with the proposed ballot initiative they filed last week. Not only do they now have to find a constituency for a government reform political campaign — that is, deep pocketed donors whose motivation is more altruism than personal advancement — they’re also going to have to find some catchy way of explaining their measure, one that tackles just about everything on the dysfunctional government front in California.

The “Government Performance and Accountability Act” (PDF) runs 22 pages and proposes constitutional changes for both state and local government, with much of the proposal focused on budgeting. It includes a new multi-year approach to the state budget (beefier, it seems, than the bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last month); a mandate for performance assessments of state operations (nixed by Brown with a dismissive veto message [PDF]); and rules requiring that any tax cuts or new programs also include a way to finance those changes.

The proposed initiative also mandates changes in the state-local government relationship. Most unique is its creation of ‘Community Strategic Action Plans’ starting in 2014, plans crafted with public input and laying out how local government budgets will promote “a prosperous economy, quality environment, and community equity, as reflected in the following goals: increasing employment, improving education, decreasing poverty, decreasing crime, improving health, and other community priorities.” Locals (cities, counties, schools) would also be required to set performance goals on these items, and later report back to their citizens about success or failure. The adoption of a strategic plan would trigger a new flexibility for locals in how to spend taxpayer dollars — including the option of deciding among themselves how to divvy up those dollars.

But wait, there’s more. California Forward’s initiative also modifies the general legislative process in Sacramento. Bills would have to be in print for at least three days, ending the time-honored tradition of ‘gut and amend’ lawmaking; there would be a tighter calendar for bill action in year 2 of a legislative session, with the extra time used for legislative review of programs; and — a long-debated biggie — the governor would have new, unilateral powers to cut spending if the Legislature fails to act after the declaration of a fiscal emergency. Those cuts could be undone, but only by a supermajority legislative votes.

“We think this has the potential of restoring the public’s confidence in government,” said California Forward’s executive director Jim Mayer in a series of email exchanges over the weekend. “This is a strategic combination of best practices that is completely in sync with what the public thinks needs to be done.”

Mayer says the group believes that their initiative, which would make multiple changes in state and local government operations, does not run afoul of California’s ‘single subject rule‘ for initiatives. “Every element is focused on government performance and accountability,” he says.

Mayer points to polling the group has done suggesting once voters are explained the ideas, they like them. But he concedes that the government reform group now faces the tough task of raising money to gather signatures, and says the next six weeks are crucial in that regard.

“It is the irony of ironies,” he says, “that an initiative developed through a very public process, based on real world success in public agencies, and which polls in the mid-60s can’t reach the ballot without political contributions.”

Money, though, wouldn’t seem to be a problem for another would-be reformer…

Paging Mr. Berggruen: One thing California Forward is making clear is that their initiative is not the much-talked about proposal (or proposals) being crafted by a group known as the Think Long Committee, led by — and presumably eventually financed by — billionaire investor Nicholas Berggruen. There’s some crossover in the groups, but not coordination.

Berggruen’s group of all-star politicos continues to insist that it’s on the verge of releasing some kind of reform proposal to place on the November 2012 ballot, one being closely watched in reform circles. Spokesperson Dawn Nakagawa said today that a proposal is indeed coming and will be ready in the next few weeks.

Berggruen, often dubbed the ‘homeless billionaire’ for the fact that he lives on his private jet and not in any one locale, was a little coy in an interview conducted for a special edition of KQED-TV’s This Week on the state’s governance crisis. The program airs this coming Friday night at 7:30 p.m.

“The idea is to go beyond parties, beyond special interests and try to come up with a compromise,” said Berggruen in an interview with Spencer Michels. He said his group’s efforts will likely include both governance issues like the budget, and electoral issues like the initiative process. And he sees the fight as larger than just the Golden State.

“What’s I think interesting about California,” said Berggruen, “is that if we’re able to make reforms here I think it’ll be a signal, and California I think is a bellwether.”

In the following excerpt from my KQED TV colleagues, Berggruen is asked why he thinks he can succeed where others have failed.

All of these efforts come on the heels of all the buzzed-but-collapsed efforts in 2010, from California Forward’s own efforts to a separate group that sought to convene a full-blown California constitutional convention.

November 2012 Ticking Clock: As everyone points out, it’s hard not to notice that reformers really only have one avenue for change: the voters, most likely via an initiative. And it’s the initiative process’ timetable that’s triggering so many proposals to come forward as 2011 winds down, including ones on other hot button issues not related to governance.

Initiatives must have fiscal and legal vetting before backers can begin gathering signatures, and that (by law) can take up to 40 business days. With the holidays approaching, that means a proposed initiative may not be ready to hit the streets until sometime in early January. Initiatives must qualify for the ballot — and constitutional proposals, such as these, require more signatures — at least 131 days before the November 6, 2012 election. That’s June 28 of next year.

Now backtime the days, and dollars, needed for gathering signatures, submitting them to elections officials, and having those signatures validated, and you can see that the race is on. And, of course, this is all before anyone starts trying to sell the ideas to voters… and fights the inevitable opposition from interest groups who might see their power diminish under the proposed changes.

Update: Longtime political columnist and initiative watcher Peter Schrag ends a column published online yesterday about the California Forward initiative this way: “It could make things marginally better. Could.”

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John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he served nine years as the statehouse bureau chief for KQED Public Radio and The California Report, and most recently as political editor for the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John served as moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and was recently named by The Washington Post as one of the nation's most influential statehouse reporters.  Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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