Talking ’bout a devolution

Animal species evolve in order to survive. For California government, “devolution” may be the key.

At least that’s the thinking of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. He told Bites last week that after a generation of Proposition 13, and three decades of evolving power and responsibility up to the state level, we need to take a serious look at giving back power to local governments.

Bites doesn’t need to tell you the basic problem. Californians want government services and don’t want to pay for them. Meanwhile, cities and counties are completely reliant on state funding, money the state doesn’t have, to pay for the mandates on local governments.

The result is a fiscal cul-de-sac. “When I look at a $25 billion deficit, I think the present structure of government is not sustainable,” Steinberg explained.

“The choice is to make massive cuts that will harm people, and harm the economic recovery, or to raise taxes, which is politically impossible.”

But Steinberg says there is another option. “The third way is to move services closer to people.”

Call it realignment. Call it devolution. It isn’t a new idea, but one that’s getting a harder look as state lawmakers run out of options.

One specific proposal to cut the state’s corrections budget, which Steinberg described as “way out of whack,” is to start offering locals money to keep low-level offenders in county jails, or on county probation, or in other county programs.

The idea is the counties can do the job more effectively, and more cheaply, and get a little revenue boost in the deal. Similarly, Steinberg has proposed shifting funding and responsibility for programs like CalWORKs, Adult Protective Services and drug courts to the counties. He’s even exploring ways that realignment could help local school districts.

But will devolution really pencil out? Roger Dickinson, just elected to the state Assembly after four terms on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, says he thinks realignment of some services could “potentially be a good deal for the county.” But in the short term, he worries that “the discussion is going to be about how can the state can save money and the counties can take more responsibility.”

The tricky part is giving locals the responsibility, and the revenue.

“We need to allow local communities to define their futures,” said Steinberg. That’s pro tem-speak for giving local government more power to raise taxes.

The weirdness of our current system is that voters can approve a general purpose sales-tax increase or other revenue boost with a simple-majority vote. But specific taxes—say for schools or cops or mass transit—require two-thirds approval by voters. Steinberg says we ought to flip those rules.

And the thing is, locals will vote to assess themselves, if they know what they’re getting—they pass school bonds and transportation sales taxes all the time. And they’ll even vote to preserve revenue streams—look at the 40-point drubbing that Measure B took this last election.

Of course, any reforms would mean going to the statewide ballot with one or more constitutional amendments. You know the script, Democrats and unions will promote it, while conservatives and anti-tax groups will attack it as “an end-run around Prop. 13.”

Steinberg concedes going to the ballot with any kind of reform measure would be hard, but says there may not be many alternatives. “When people say it’s fraught with political difficulties, I get it, but difficult compared to what? We’ve got to think big, not as an academic exercise, but out of a real sense that we can’t continue on this way.”