Is This Really How We Got Here?

Both Carla Marinucci and her friends at Calbuzz have penned very similar articles in recent days examining the causes of the state’s crisis of governance. They both picked out the same contributing factors, some of which make more sense than others as I’ll examine below.

But what is most interesting about their articles is that they stem from the same basis – that California suffers from a system that makes it difficult for centrists to wheel and deal. Perhaps it’s a reflection of their journalistic attitude, one that emphasizes personalities and back-room details over an explanation of the ideological factors that have actually driven CA politics for some time. In any case, the articles wind up leaving Californians with something less than the full picture of why our state is facing its worst crisis since Commodore Sloat came ashore to raise the flag here in Monterey in 1846.

Marinucci and Matthew Yi’s front page article in today’s SF Chronicle posits the following factors as the cause of California’s crisis:

— Partisanship: California’s gerrymandered legislative districts tend to protect incumbents and encourage more political extremes – Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left with less incentive to reach out to the political middle, much less compromise at the Capitol.

— Term limits: Proposition 140, passed in 1990, limits legislators terms to six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate.

— Ballot-box budgeting: Initiative-loving Californians mandated set-aside funding for all kinds of single-interest issues, from education to stem cell research.

— Prop. 13: The 1978 landmark law slashed commercial and residential property tax rates, shifting state reliance to other more volatile sources.

— The two-thirds majority rule: The Golden State is one of just three states that require a two-thirds majority vote from each legislative house to pass budgets.

And the quite similar list from Calbuzz:

Proposition 13…

Budget initiatives…


Term limits…

Boom or bust taxation…

The two-thirds vote…

First, let’s focus on the things they got wrong, beginning with gerrymandering and partisanship. Partisanship is impossible to extricate from American politics – politics IS about partisanship and has been since Hamilton and Jefferson faced off in 1790. Specifically, Marinucci and the Calbuzzers point to gerrymandering as somehow causing what Calbuzz called “ideological polarization in Sacramento, where lawmakers have little motivation to compromise.”

This is just not the case. As Nate Silver has effectively explained Americans are increasingly choosing to live in communities filled with like-minded people. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in California, where social and political values are an important factor in individual decisions about where to live. There are few conservatives in the SF Bay Area and few liberals in the Inland Empire. It’s nearly impossible to draw districts that do not reflect this reality without gerrymandering on an even more massive scale than what has been done previously.

Their analysis also ignores what happens in the swing seats. Democrats from purple districts tend to act like moderate centrists. But Republicans from similar districts, like Tony Strickland, act like hard-right ideologues. The evidence just doesn’t suggest that ideological battles are some side effect of gerrymandering. They are a feature, not a bug, of our state’s politics and have been for over 30 years.

More over the flip, including Calbuzz’s apparent endorsement of the Parsky Commission’s tax plans.

The two articles also focused on what Calbuzz called “boom-and-bust taxation”:

Boom or bust taxation: Since Proposition 13, state government has become increasingly dependent on volatile sources of revenue – the sales, corporation and progressive personal income taxes – that generate annual shifts in tax collections corresponding closely to the business cycle.

When economic times are good, as during the dot-com and housing bubbles, money pours in and there’s little political incentive – in fact, term limits creates a perverse disincentive – for long-term financial planning.

When revenues contract, the Capitol has rarely made real spending reductions, preferring to wait for the next boom.

This is a rather deeply flawed frame. The fact is that all taxes are volatile since all taxes depend on economic activity. We have lived in a boom-and-bust economy since the early 1980s. It should be obvious that will be reflected in the state’s tax revenues. There is no tax whatsoever that is immune from this, property taxes included.

The Calbuzz analysis of this “problem” reads like an endorsement of the Parsky Commission’s plans to hit the poor and the middle class with taxes in order to allow the rich to escape their obligations. They are right that term limits creates a disincentive for long-term planning, but they also show their own ideological bias in criticizing the supposed lack of “real spending reductions” – not only have these reductions actually happened every year since 2007, but those spending reductions are extremely damaging to our state’s economy.

The two articles did note some problems that actually contribute to the mess in Sacramento, but their explanation of these problems is flawed. Take Prop 13, which Calbuzz sees not so much as a revenue problem but as a political problem:

After Proposition 13 passed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat-dominated Legislature realigned – “tangled” would be more accurate – the relationship between state and local governments by effectively shifting control of remaining property tax revenue to Sacramento.

In a crisis atmosphere, they radically transformed California’s political landscape, taking power and responsibility for health, welfare, schools and other local services away from city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards, thereby establishing today’s chaotic maze of overlapping jurisdiction, which defies efforts at accountability.

The loss of local control certainly didn’t help matters. But that’s not the main argument against Prop 13. Instead the problem is that it gutted the state’s ability to pay for core services. Neither the state nor local governments can use the property tax, a tool most other states are able to employ, to fund schools and roads. Prop 13 also played a central role in fueling California’s real estate bubbles in the 1980s and the 2000s – although the latter bubble was national in scope, it was most pronounced here in California where property taxes did not act as a brake on land speculation.

Marinucci’s article is a bit better on the topic, as she did mention the split-roll issue, where corporations are given the same protections as residential property owners.

Both articles also pointed to the 2/3 rule as a key factor in the crisis, and both got this one right. Marinucci’s article was the stronger of the two on the 2/3 rule, quoting a public policy prof who gets why the lack of democracy distorts the budget process:

“The problem is that neither side has been held to account,” said John Ellwood, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. “Republicans are not blamed because there’s only a third of them and Democrats are not blamed because they don’t have a supermajority to pass taxes.”

If Democrats, who hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature, “keep hiking taxes, at some point the voters will just throw them out. That’s what representative government is all about,” he said.

Still, the overall effect of the articles is to suggest that the problem in Sacramento is too much partisanship and rules that get in the way of letting politicians from both parties come together to make cuts. Neither article seems to grasp the ideological nature of the present crisis, or the fact that many of these structural flaws are themselves the product of conservative ideologues who wanted to block the Democratic majority of California from building a more progressive state.

The inattention to ideology in order to preference a study of personalities and deal-cutting is a characteristic of the journalism Marinucci and the Calbuzzers practice. California’s system of governance needs to be reformed, as we have long been saying here at Calitics. But even those reforms will just be a first step, enabling progressives to finally have the chance to get Californians to embrace their vision of a better state. Focusing on the structural problems without explaining the role of 30 years of conservative policy in producing the crisis is only giving readers part of the story.

7 thoughts on “Is This Really How We Got Here?”

  1. (1) Prop 13 is, of course, an unholy mess.  I believe that we should return everything possible to the moment after Prop 13 passed, before Jerry Brown and the legislature took over all the finances in the state.  Give the remaining property tax money back to the municipalities and let them deal with the required services on that paltry budget.  That is the kind of shock therapy that will finally get the attention of the middle class.  The legislature and governors have been so busy protecting the citizens from themselves that nothing can be done.  It’s time to let the citizens know the consequences.  (I know it won’t happen but it should.)

    (2)  Partisanship is always a favorite bugaboo.  My Democratic Assemblyman and my Democratic Senator are not terribly Democratic.  They are radical.  The Assemblyman also has some ethical problems which are for another post.

    The problem with the partisanship argument is that it is another straw man placed there by idiots.  George Skelton of the LA Times from time to time recommends that political parties be outlawed in state elections and that the legislature be elected on a non-partisan basis.  There are continuing attempts at open primaries and the like in order to get rid of the parties.

    Getting rid of political parties just makes certain rich people more powerful because voters can no longer rely on party affiliation to judge, at least in some way, the qualities of a candidate.  We will end up with a legislature filled with people who can finance their own campaigns, since there will no longer be parties identified with the candidates and party money will mean less.

    The process of destruction continues unabated and no one is willing to make the hard choices, least of all the voters, who don’t even know there are choices to be made.

  2.   Prop 13 did not contribute to the real estate bubble, because assessed value was 1% of the purchase price (plus a minor yearly increment).  For people buying in 1967, that is very low–for people buying in 2007, it was very high.  What

    created the bubble is the belief that one could “flip” the house one has bought in 2-3 years for 50-100% more than one paid for it.

     All that being said, Prop 13 is a disaster on pretty much every count, the reasons being 2/3rds requirements, loss of local control, volatility (property taxes are relatively stable–so is the car tax, and Arnold ran on that in 2003 and won).

  3. A significant piece of the crisis missed by Marinucci is the ‘no new taxes’ pledge that is a necessity for any Republican to get through a primary. When one party throws away a key component of governance even before the general election, you end up with crises like the ones we have been seeing in recent years.

    My recollection is that the pledge originated after Reagan became president, but possibly after he left office, given that he signed multiple tax increases as president (and, of course, a huge tax increase as governor of California). When were the first ‘no new taxes’ pledges a near-requirement to be a Republican candidate?

  4. I think you over-estimate political self-segregation. There are, in fact, plenty of liberals in the Inland Empire region — many of whom very nearly toppled Congressman Ken Calvert, recently, for example. It’s true that the balance varies, and that some people choose their homes in part by social and cultural characteristics that correlate with political outlook — but many people also choose their homes to be close to their workplaces, or because they are affordable, as well.

    Meanwhile, there can be no doubt that computer-assisted gerrymandering has led to much more efficient segregation of electoral districts, and to some pretty strange looking ones, too. If people really had sorted themselves out, then gerrymandering would lead to much less extreme districts, after all!

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