Let’s bring citizens together to run government

I brought up that bit about Nevada being the second most dysfunctional state in the union last week (according to a National Journal July 13 article). Although the survey raises some very good points about the dysfunctionality of our current leadership, the fact that our state legislature was able to forge strong enough bipartisan compromise and pass the veto-proof budget in June demonstrates that Nevada does not suffer from the kind of systemic dysfunctionality of, say, California.

But back in 2003, things weren’t so fine and dandy. That was when Gov. Kenny Guinn and the legislature couldn’t agree on a budget to fund education, so Guinn asked the Nevada Supreme Court to intervene. Like many other states, Nevada lacks a systemic process for resolving budget stalemates. Also like other states, Nevada now faces grim fiscal realities that the bipartisan political world seems especially ill-equipped to handle in times of economic crisis.

Enter a couple of policy wonks with a truly elegant solution for resolving state budget disputes: a citizen’s assembly. Chris Elmendorf of UC Davis and Ethan J. Leib of the University of California Hastings College of the Law described this concept in the July 28 New York Times:

“Modeled after programs in provinces as diverse as Port Alegre, Brazil and Zeguo township, China, the citizen’s assembly would be convened only in the event that the governor and legislature failed to reach a budget agreement—as was the case in 2003. The assembly would draw from a random selection of state citizens—one from each legislative district—who would be called to service in the same way that juries are assembled.

“Three competing budgets would be drawn up: one by the governor, one by the Democratic caucuses in the legislative branch and one by the Republican caucuses. For two weeks, the citizens’ assembly would hear from and question government leaders, policy experts, interest groups and other supporters and critics of the proposed budgets. The citizens would then deliberate among themselves and vote by secret ballot on which of the budgets to adopt. The vote would take place on the budgets as originally submitted; neither the citizens nor lawmakers would be able to make amendments. The winning budget would become law.”

Elmendorf and Leib go on to describe several virtues of this plan, all of which I think would improve Nevada’s fiscal future immensely: “First, it would ensure that states adopt budgets in a timely fashion, protecting bond ratings and freeing lawmakers to attend to other important business.

“Second, it would give the three institutional actors in the budgetary process—the governor and the Democratic and Republican caucuses—strong incentives to devise budgets that appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, not political ideologues or special-interest favor seekers. [Participating] citizens … would also learn an awful lot about their state’s fiscal situation and competing legislative priorities.”

The citizen’s assembly would also improve accountability: “When budgets are adopted under divided government (or supermajority requirements), it is hard for voters to figure out exactly who is responsible for the shape of the compromises … Our approach to budgeting promotes accountability because the enacted budget would unequivocally belong to ‘the governor,’ ‘the Republicans’ or ‘the Democrats.’ Voters would know exactly whom to reward or fault when they go to the polls at the next election.

“Finally, our proposal honors Americans’ insistence on a strong popular voice in government, without demanding too much of citizen participants. It would require them to perform only a fairly simple task: rank your preferences among three proposed budgets, after hearing out the proponents and opponents of each.”

Nevada would do well to adopt such a program. As a state, we must plan for the economic realities of the future and build institutional structures that will allow us to rise above the wasteful politics of budget battles.