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Good News from California, Finally

In Stockton, California, the dangerous combination of high debt and low employment has sent the city into state-mandated mediation to stave off bankruptcy. But the city is already preparing its bankruptcy case in the event that mediation doesn’t work. The Wall Street Journal details the city’s problems:

The city of 300,000 in the agriculture-heavy Central Valley owes more than $700 million in long-term debt to creditors, and officials say it faces a budget deficit of $26 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 due to financial problems including high retiree medical costs. . . .

The city has already made deep cuts to services. Since 2008, Mr. Deis said, Stockton has laid off 25% of its police force, 30% of its fire-department staff and 43% of staff not responsible for public safety. Mr. Deis said cutting labor costs alone won’t be enough to close the budget gap. “There’s a limit,” he said.

Stockton may be the canary in the coal mine for California. Businesses across the state are fleeing its high taxes and regulations, state pensions are woefully underfunded, cities and towns around the state are laying off workers, and the state’s infamously sclerotic political system builds high-tech trains and bans luxury meals while neglecting to do much of anything about the state’s serious fiscal crisis.

Yet amid all the gloom shines a ray of good news, also from the Journal: the state’s experiment with electoral reforms appears to be working.

For years, California’s electoral system was among the worst in the nation. Gerrymandered political districts and polarizing politics meant that in many of the state’s electoral districts, either the Democrat or the Republican was guaranteed a victory, and the real battle was fought in that party’s primary. Because these primaries were closed to independents, primary races were generally a race to the extremes.

Eventually, voters became fed up, and two years ago the state passed two measures to combat the problem. The first created a nonpartisan electoral board to redraw the congressional districts within the state. The second created an open, nonpartisan primary system, in which all candidates compete in a primary open to all voters regardless of party, with the two leading candidates facing each other in the general elections. In liberal districts two Democrats may compete; while two Republicans may compete in conservative ones—in either case, candidates have an incentive to appeal to the center.

Does it work? Two years on, races in previously safe districts have seen an uptick in the number of candidates that lean toward the center, and in many cases, the centrists are winning:

Mr. Maldonado arguably has the open primaries to thank for his place on the November ballot. He became a GOP pariah after his vote as a state senator in 2009 passed a budget that included tax increases. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed, in return, to his demand of lobbying for the current open-primary system as a way to end gridlock. . . .

In San Fernando Valley’s redrawn 31st congressional district, two liberal-leaning Democratic incumbents—Howard Berman and Brad Sherman—will now face off in November. Mr. Sherman, who finished first, renewed his attacks on Mr. Berman as fiscally irresponsible for backing the federal bank-bailout bill and thanked his Republican supporters. . . .

Mr. Sherman, who like Mr. Berman is seeking a ninth term, said open primaries should make politicians more accountable to all voters. “This system is bad for politicians, but good for voters,” he said in an interview. “It means if you are an Orange County Democrat or San Fernando Valley Republican, you can be an important vote.”

We’ll see if this helps; centrists always think electing more centrists will make things better. Sometimes they are right, but sometimes the problem is with a sterile “centrist” consensus. From where we sit, California looks so broken that without taking on some entrenched interests and some hard and even divisive fights, not much can be done. Will consensus minded centrists have the vision and the guts for the kind of confrontations California may need? Or will split-the-difference, down-the-middle centrists just muddle along as the state sinks deeper in the mire?

California’s political culture seems to have bought into some bad ideas that don’t work, and until voters reject those bad ideas and the policies that flow from them, the state looks set to keep trending downhill.

Even so, it’s good to see Californians realizing that something needs to change in their state. These reforms may not be the end of the change California needs, but they could be a sign that the state is starting to think.

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  • Luke Lea

    Can’t help wondering how much of this is due to third world immigration. Is this the future of America?

  • Alex Scipio

    @Luke Lea

    Because of public sector union clout, public employees in “safety” professions – cops, firefighters, prison guards, etc., can retire @ 30 yrs service with 90% salary & COLA. In practice this means a HS or CC grad starting work @ 20 in those careers can retire @ 50, @ 90%. So basically, CA taxpayers are paying for TWO ENTIRE sets of employees in these careers: 30 years of active, useful employees doing the job, and 30 years of retired, useless employees going fishing but being paid 90%. Illegal immigration costs pale beside two complete sets of employees doing one complete set of work.

  • ms

    The redistricting is good, but I have doubts about the nonpartisan primary system. The problem is that “centrist” in CA is not very centrist. Sure, there are some Republican districts, but mostly it is a one-party state that is very, very blue. If the new system makes it a slightly lighter shade of blue, our problems will not be solved. In other words, it is not a recipe for the kind of bold reform that the state needs. I think instead we will just see two democrats that pander to special interests at the top of most statewide tickets. I have hoped in the past that the terrible condition of state finances might eventually lead to the election of a strong conservative who would take on entrenched special interests like unions Scott Walker style. This new system makes that hope more remote IMHO.I fervently wish we could make a state out of the coastal corridor from LA to SF and allow the rest of us to split away, but that will never happen.

    It is nice to know that Via Meadia has some hope for the state, but I continue to sadly believe that the motto for California, one that should be painted under every Welcome to California greeting, is “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” On the bright side, however, the votes in San Diego and San Jose in favor of fiscal sanity in these cities offer the tiniest ray of possible hope.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea:

    You’re probably right about 3rd-world immigration skewing the amount that is spent on services per-capita vs. the amount that is gathered in taxes.

    We’ve got serious unemployment problems in this country. Uncontrolled immigration makes absolutely no sense under those circumstances. Mead, you’ve pointed out that Mexico is developing more opportunities, which dissipates much of the humanitarian outcry about encouraging people to stay put; shouldn’t that tip the balance in favor of implementing sane immigration laws in this country?

  • vanderleun

    A sign the state is starting to think? I think not. Not at all. The state of California is a drunk, an addict, a serial abuser, not good at anger management, and simply cannot handle money.

    But it is NOT going to undergo some sort of magical “oh look they came to their senses” moment of reversal. Like any drunk or addict it is going to have to bottom. And hit a really hard bottom.

    It’s going to need to see riots in the streets, burnings, and the National Guard in the streets before it even begins to turn around.

    Depend upon this.

  • thibaud

    “will split-the-difference, down-the-middle centrists just muddle along as the state sinks deeper in the mire?”

    What does this mean, exactly?

    Jerry Brown is taking on the unions and has already sacked the Dept of Oil & Gas environmentalist who was blocking permitting for OXY and the oil drillers from exploiting Calif’s vast shale and other reserves. Do these actions constitute meaningless, namby-pamby, “split-the-difference” steps?

    Ohio’s governor tried to slap down unions and was himself slapped down – in fact, it’s reasonable to think that Walker succeeded where Kasich failed in large part because a recall vote, rather than a simple referendum, was viewed by many centrist voters – including pro-Obama union households – as a radical, needlessly destructive end-run around democratic processes.

    Ironically, the two areas where we desperately need the political class to move beyond split-the-middle non-reform are those where Via Meadia is either silent or reactionary: replacing our idiotic, underclass-biased immigration policy and our Frankenstein kludge of a pseudo-market healthcare non-system.

  • thibaud

    The greatest damage from the underclass that California has brought in from the south over the last three decades is yet to come.

    But you can see the tsunami on the horizon when you look at the California grade 1-11 education stats, which are sortable by not just district, school etc but also ethnicity and financial need.

    You will see that, contrary to the claims of both the teacher-basing right and the Prop13-obsessed left, the real driver of California’s steady descent from #1 to #49 in national educational achievement is simple demographics.

    Specifically, the decline is correlated with the sharp increase, from <15% of total school population to 51% today, in one demographic that does not give a _chinga_ about education.

    That demographic has a failure rate of over 70% and a HS dropout rate over 40%. The share of the California school population for that demographic is increasing by about one percentage point each year – and its performance does NOT improve over generations.

    Put all these together and you can see that our retarded, self-destructive open (southern) border immigration policy is the biggest reason that California will, unbelievably, have a shortage of capable college graduates in another decade or two.

    And yet our political partisans, determined to deny OtherSide any electoral advantage and racing to pander to this demographic, insists that this is the best of all possible worlds.

    Pox on both etc

  • cubanbob

    If welfare benefits were limited to those who actually graduate high school or pass an equivilency exam along with limiting welfare to single mothers to one child only the problem would resolve itself in a generation.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The problem with California is that it is a Dark Blue State, at a time when the Blue Model is crashing from its own inefficiencies. It’s the voters that have failed, the votes in San Diego and San Jose may mean that the voters are finally beginning to wise up, but it is very late and the momentum is against California. With the tax base in decline California will lose far more people and businesses even if they had already turned things around, which they haven’t.

  • Standfast24

    I have little faith in California’s leadership. The majority liberal, Democratic residents don’t have a clue how much revenue is required to provide all the services they want.
    Political power and contributions are concentrated in the Bay Area counties and West Side of LA, most owners there pay a fraction of their appraised value. Newer buyers in the Inland Empire and outer bay area were not only paying higher relative property taxes but have been decimated by the real estate meltdown.
    Real Estate values in LA and Bay area have held up much better.
    The greatest irony is that a Republican minority blocks taxes, enabling liberal majority to avoid paying them.
    The only way to get the attention of the majority is to repeal Prop 13 and make all residents pay for all the services they want by markedly higher property taxes.
    Most realists don’t trust the state numbers, and I doubt 1 in 1000 residents can tell you the total debt per capita (including unfunded pension liabilities) they they are (in theory) liable for. One article places the range from $ 7,400 to ~ $ 20,000 and that was early 2011.

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