jump to navigation

Time to begin the reform with Gordon Lloyd (San Francisco Chronicle) November 17, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

The kinds are in their counting houses, counting out their political capital. While President George W. Bush and his advisers tally up how much political capital he earned on election day and how to spend it, Gove. Arnold Scwarzenegger and his political analysts are making a similar assessment as he completes his first year in Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger’s political capital and California’s desperate needs are both at all-time highs. Even before the election, his job approval was an impressive 66 percent and, in a series of shrewd election bets, the governor managed to strengthen his hand, winning 11 of the 14 California ballot proposition votes on which he took a stnad. The next step is a clear, if bold, one: It is time for the governor to put his capital on the table in an effort to undertake the major reforms California needs in order to prosper.

Despite losses in the handful of legislative races where he placed a bet, his political power has never been, and may never be, greater. But political consultant Dan Schnur points out: “Political capital is like ice. The longer you sit on it, the faster it goes away.” If the law of political capital is “use or lose it,” the question becmoes where the governor should invest his considerable assets. The answer is in thoroughgoing reform of some of our biggest problem areas: antiquated government, budgetary gridlock and educational underperformance. Californians did not recall a duly elected governor and elect a popular movie star to conduct business as usual, so let the reforming begin.

The governor can take three paths to reform: executive order, legislative leadership and direct democracy through the people. He will need to travel all three roads to implement a comprehensive reform agenda. Executive order is, of course, the easiest path and many of the suggestions in the California Performance Review, the plan for reforming the state government drawn up by a panel appointed by teh governor, can be initiated in this way. The review concluded that California’s 300 boards and commisions, 11 agencies and 79 departments create a maze of duplicating, overlapping and expensive structures. The governor can, with a stroke of his pen, eliminate many unnecessary professional certfication boards, for example, and consolidate a host of other government entities into a single state infrastructure agency to address pressing needs of highway, water and other basic systems.

The going gets tougher, however, when he turns to the Legislature, as he must in unlocking the state’s budgetary gridlock. This year’s budget solutions were largely temporary and it will be a higher-stakes game as leaders are forced to choose between real program cuts and tax increases. The state Legislature is still dominated by Democrats (48-32 in the Assembly and 25-15 in the Senate), but Schwarzenegger is not your father’s Republican. He can reach across party lines, as can his new finance director, Tom Campbell, whose moderate social ideas combine with fiscal restraint in a way that matches the governor and even many Democrats.

While collaboration with the Legislature might lead to budgetary reform, addressing educational underperformance there is as likely as winning a jackpot at an Indian casino. The teacher’s union, which consistently opposes major reforms of education, can be expected to stir the Democratic Legislature to oppose needed legislation such as tying teacher pay to performance and affording parents school choice within their district. Nevertheless, the governor will need to invest political capital here before he turns to his big reform alternative: a major package of ballot initiatives.

In the end, the governor’s real power comes, as he says, from the people. Although neither of us ordinarily favors extensive ballot measures, these are not ordinary times. If the Legislature fails to enact major reforms, the governor should be prepared to take his reforms directly to the people. Starting with his idea that voting districts should be drawn by an independent panel of retired judges, not by the vested interests of the Legislature, and moving mroe control and money to local government and school districts, the governor should present a comprehensive reform package to the people.

What Schwarzenegger says of the people is equally true of his own performance: “When the people flex their muscles, then the state gets much stronger.” Let’s hope the governor is ready to flex his political muscle and take advantage of the state’s best chance for major reform.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-11.

%d bloggers like this: