We made this mess

If we want a great state, we have to pay for it

A recent statewide poll tells a lot about the sorry state of governance in California—and why things aren’t likely to get better anytime soon.

What the Los Angeles Times/USC poll shows most of all is how discouraged voters are by the state’s dysfunction and at the same time how blind they are to their own role in that dysfunction.

As the Times reports in back-to-back stories on Nov. 8 and 9, most poll respondents said they believed California’s best years were behind it and that it was “in the midst of a long-term decline.”

In addition, voters “see the state’s problems as the product of unrestrained lawmakers driven by special interests to waste taxpayer money, and reject arguments that structural issues with the state Constitution and government institutions are to blame.”

Of course lawmakers waste money—witness the $2 billion in pork-barrel projects they crammed into the $11 billion water bond approved last week. But voters are wrong not to recognize that structural problems—some of their own making, including various initiatives—are major obstacles to reform. Those obstacles are keeping lawmakers from finding new ways to pay for the changes we all want.

The most prosperous period in California’s history was the 1960s, when the state built new highways, water-conveyance systems and colleges from San Diego to Siskiyou County. It was also the time when people paid the most, per capita, in state taxes. Californians seemed to understand then that taxing themselves was key to building a progressive state.

If California is in decline, it’s because residents no longer are willing to pay for the services they want or create the conditions that would free lawmakers to break the current stalemate.

The poll shows, for example, that 54 percent of them want to keep the two-thirds requirement for passing a budget, even though no other large state has such a restriction. In addition, 65 percent reject extending the sales tax to service providers such as lawyers and auto shops, and 62 percent oppose easing the restrictions on property-tax increases under Proposition 13, even if it would affect only commercial property and not residences.

I’m not going to defend the lawmakers, but I will point out that they can cut spending when they have to. That’s what they’ve been doing for the past two years, lopping more than $40 billion from the budget, with devastating impacts on higher education, social services and the safety net for the poor. They’ve done so to balance the state budget because, thanks to the two-thirds rule, the Republican minority has been able to block efforts to generate new tax revenues.

California is a huge state with huge problems. It’s expensive to run, more so than most other states. If we want good roads and schools, we have to pay for them. The dysfunction and stalemate in Sacramento won’t end until we decide to invest in California. And to do that we need to make structural changes. It’s just that simple—and that challenging.