06/23/2011 | 5 mins |

Can California Move the US Forward?

06/23/2011 | 5 mins |

Thank you for checking back in. I expect that some of you were wondering whether I had gone off the chain with my post earlier this week. Allow me to elaborate on my claim that—improbable as it seems—California may become an example for the rest of the country on how to fix the fundamental problems in our public life and achieve the much needed reset in government funding of and support for the delivery of human services.

Part of my optimism stems from the fact that the situation here is so messed up. An economic recovery will not help. As a recent Brookings study pointed out, notwithstanding ostensible requirements to balance its budget each year, California’s fiscal arrangements are, at a fundamental level, "structurally unbalanced"—a condition defined by policy analyst Hal Hovey as one "...in which the revenues produced by a state’s tax system (along with its other revenues) are insufficient to maintain existing levels of services." Sooner or later, Californians are going to come hard up against Herbert Stein's dictum that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

California may have found its Diogenes in Jerry Brown, the Democratic Governor elected last year to fill a post he first held back in the 1970s. The 73-year-old Brown seems determined to give Californians the government—and only the government—that they are willing to pay for. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney, in a recent piece entitled "Jerry Brown's Last Stand," reported the governor saying that "if you talk about taxes, you don’t get elected – so that is a nonstarter now... you have to keep cutting to the point where people say they want to increase their contribution." Just last week Brown became the first governor in the state’s history to veto a budget. Brown's veto statement, accompanied in another first by a bare-knuckled You Tube clip, decried the fact that the proposed budget "continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars of new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings. Finally, it is not financeable and therefore will not allow us to meet our obligations as they occur. We can—and must—do better."

Jerry Brown is not alone in thinking that extraordinary times call for extraordinary solutions. Last month the Coalition for a California Financial Workout, speaking on behalf of business leadership groups and chambers of commerce from across the state, issued a call for "a workout plan where taxpayers agree to extend temporary taxes on the condition that the state government fix the underlying conditions that got California into trouble."

Even more encouraging is the work of California Forward, an advocacy and citizens group launched several years ago through the initiative of several leading foundations and nonprofits in the state. California Forward's mission "is to work with Californians to help create a 'smart' government – one that's small enough to listen, big enough to tackle real problems, smart enough to spend our money wisely in good times and bad, and honest enough to be held accountable for results."

What makes the work of California Forward so compelling is that it is tackling fiscal and structural reforms not for their own sake, as so often is the case in the land of wonkdom, but as essential means for achieving broader public purposes. Indeed, California Forward is working to focus everyone’s attention on what it has termed the "Big Five Outcomes" that the state should be advancing alongside local governments: "increased employment, improved education, decreased poverty, decreased crime, and improved health." Citizens can rally behind these basic goals. And—assuming that program outcomes are measured to ascertain whether government is getting sufficient bang for the buck, as California Forward insists they should be—you can more easily see taxpayers being persuaded to underwrite the costs of providing them.

Perhaps California Forward's most refreshing contribution to the public debate is its unstinting belief that our public problems can and in fact need to be resolved through a more robust and engaged citizenship. Alongside the white papers on specific reforms that they are circulating in Sacramento, they are encouraging residents of the state to weigh in with their own views. In introducing a powerful video vignette on "The Path Forward," California Forward notes that "this is our vision for fixing the state, but we want to hear yours, too. Tap into your imagination. Think of California today and then ask yourself, 'Where do I see California tomorrow?' Think big, and make no little plans."

Along similar lines, California Forward is joining with several other organizations to orchestrate a deliberative polling exercise to explore "What's Next California?" More than 300 randomly selected Californians will participate, beginning with an upfront survey soliciting their views on state-local reform issues, tax and fiscal policy, the initiative process, etc. They are then going to meet in person this upcoming weekend to learn more about these topics from experts holding different views on the issues and deliberate amongst themselves in small groups on potential ways forward. A concluding survey will assess how the participants' views have evolved through this process and the relative priorities that people have coming out of their deliberations. The final poll results will thus resonate as an influential proxy for what engaged and informed Californians think should be done.

It would be easy to dismiss this civic engagement and the aspirations underlying it as pie in the sky stuff, a high tech Californian gloss on concepts from a dusty civics textbook. However, I am increasingly persuaded that, far from being idealists, the reformers and citizens joining with California Forward and like movements elsewhere in the country are in fact the realists among us. The solutions they are advancing won’t be easy to establish, but in their depth and breadth they are worthy of the problems we have at hand.

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