Better Democracy NZ is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation.

Our mission is to foster the improvement of New Zealand's democratic system and encourage the use of direct democracy through the

Veto, Citizens' Initiated and Recall referendum.


Monday, 25 May 2009

California, Out of Money, Reels as Voters Rebuff Leaders

New York Times article very critical of direct democracy in California.

LOS ANGELES — Direct democracy has once again upended California — enough so that the state may finally consider another way by overhauling its Constitution for the first time in 130 years.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned home from a White House visit on Wednesday to find the state dangerously broke, his constituents defiant after a special election on Tuesday and calls for a constitutional convention — six months ago little more than a wonkish whisper — a cacophony.

As the notion of California as ungovernable grows stronger than ever, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has expressed support for a convention to address such things as the state’s arcane budget requirements and its process for proliferate ballot initiatives, both of which necessitated Tuesday’s statewide vote on budget matters approved months ago by state lawmakers.

“There could not be more of a tipping point,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business group that moved forward on Wednesday with plans to push for a constitutional convention. “We think the interest is going to grow by orders of magnitude now.”

More immediately, Mr. Schwarzenegger met with legislative leaders to begin the painful process of slashing state spending after voters rejected five ballot measures intended to balance the budget through a mix of tax increases, borrowing and the reallocation of state money.

The only ballot measure to succeed was one that prevented lawmakers and constitutional officers from getting raises in times of fiscal distress, a sort of chin-out electoral scowl by voters, who will now probably see their health care systems, schools and other services erode. On Friday, the state controller, John Chiang, and the treasurer, Bill Lockyer, are expected to appear before lawmakers and warn them that the state is nearly unable to pay its bills.

With the special-election results in, the California Citizens Compensation Commission moved Wednesday to impose an 18 percent pay cut for all elected officials, while the Bay Area Council began its campaign to rewrite the Constitution to address some of its more crippling rules and give more financial control to localities.

The constitutional effort was immediately embraced by the San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is a 2010 candidate for governor, and some political experts suggested that the movement might be perfectly timed.

“The majority of Californians say the state is headed in the wrong direction,” said Mark Baldassare, the president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan polling organization. In a March poll of 2,004 residents, two-thirds said the Constitution should be altered, Mr. Baldassare said.

“I think that we could be at a crossroads here, “ Mr. Baldassare said. “People in California don’t feel they have the government we need in the 21st century.”

The last time California held a constitutional convention was in 1878-79 when the state’s founding constitution was rewritten, though a state commission made revisions to the document in the 1960s and 1970s. Such a convention would have to be done, of course, through a ballot initiative.

In the meantime, the unpleasant exercise of renegotiating the state budget — the third time this fiscal year — must be done by June 30 in order to realize the full value of any cuts.

Facing a $21.3 billion budget deficit, Mr. Schwarzenegger is requesting a $6 billion loan from the federal government, and has proposed a variety of politically unpalatable cuts, including commuting prisoners’ sentences, taking away health insurance from some poor children, reducing aid to community colleges and eliminating a large chunk of financing for shelters that serve children and women who have been abused.

The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, will hold public hearings on the governor’s proposals next week and come up with its own suggestions, which would probably affect fewer vulnerable residents and avoid jeopardizing the loss of federal education and health care money that requires a state match.

While California has suffered the same fate as much of the nation — high unemployment, large numbers of foreclosures, general economic sluggishness — its budget woes are greatly exacerbated by its odd and in many ways outmoded way of doing business.

The ballot initiative process — in which legislators or independent groups ask voters to mandate how the state’s money is spent or not spent — has become at times an exercise in fiscal self defeat, with voters moving to earmark money for one special program one year, only to contemplate undoing their own will a few elections later.

The state’s legislative districts are highly gerrymandered, leaving the Legislature influenced by the political fringe of both parties and unable to agree on practical budget matters or much else. State senators represent roughly a million people each, larger than most Congressional districts, leaving them out of touch with local needs. Further, the state is one of only three requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature on taxes and budgets, which leads to partisan fighting and long delays.

“There was a both-sides-against-the-middle aspect,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, “reflecting the wide differences between Democrats and Republicans on the budget; a general disgust with the Legislature and the governor; ballot fatigue; and weariness with voting for yet another budgetary patch.”

California passed a budget in February contingent on the ballot measures’ winning approval. Even before Tuesday’s vote, the state was $5.8 billion newly in the hole because revenues had continued to plummet over the spring. Institutions that rely on state money have already begun to adjust in ways large and small.

The Los Angeles Superior Court will now close once a month. Dental care at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, near Sacramento, will cease on July 1. The Santa Clarita fireworks show this Fourth of July will be 10 minutes shorter.

“The state funds 94 domestic violence emergency shelter programs,” said Nicole Shellcroft, a former director of a targeted shelter in the Antelope Valley. “With this cut, the majority of them disappear.”

When he took office six years ago, Mr. Schwarzenegger promised to bring badly needed systemic change to state government. Though he has not delivered on that promise, he has laid more groundwork for it than his predecessors. He persuaded voters to let an independent panel redraw the legislative districts, which may well erode the partisan chokehold many candidates have had on parts of the state.

Also, if his ballot proposal to conduct open primaries in the state prevails at the polls next year, political change in Sacramento could be profound.


1 comment:

Steve Baron said...

It is very easy to blame direct democracy for the problems in California, the 5th argest economy in the world. Many say that direct democracy has hamstrung politicians. Professor John Matsusaka has written a paper about this which shows it doesn't. I wonder if politician and representative democracy might have something to do with the problems facing California. I will post his paper here link text