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.