Article Executive Director's Message Chris McKenzie

California Is Ungovernable Only If We Tolerate It

As I write this column on March 16, 2006, the day after the “Ides of March,” it’s hard to overlook the similarities between what happened to Julius Caesar on March 15, 400 B.C., and yesterday when the state Legislature failed to put a comprehensive infrastructure package on the June statewide ballot. Caesar ignored a soothsayer’s warning and went to the Roman Senate where he was murdered by a group of senators. What died yesterday in the Legislature was an opportunity to address with extremely willing California voters the infrastructure crisis facing our state.

How did this happen? After months of proposals, committee hearings, studies and recommendations, events culminated on March 15 (the June ballot deadline) when the Legislature did nothing to put even a small infrastructure bond proposal on the June ballot. With the Assembly working overtime to pass a scaled-down school and levee bond package, the Senate actually adjourned and went home, denying the opportunity for passage of the bills before the midnight deadline.

With nearly 75 percent of the California electorate indicating they are ready to approve some type of infrastructure bond proposal, the Legislature opted to wait to possibly send the measure to voters in November — if at all. In fact, most observers believe the odds of legislative passage decline as the general elections draw nearer because it’s the job of state elected officials to act more partisan with an election’s approach. We shouldn’t expect them to act in a bipartisan manner now; that would be unnatural.

Is it fair to characterize such inaction — after months of proposals, studies and recommendations — as a failure? Maybe not, but at a minimum it may be a costly and perhaps even fatal detour in addressing our state’s infrastructure crisis. In addition to growing partisanship as the session progresses, the mood of the electorate could change as it becomes disenchanted by legislative inaction or as a result of a major natural disaster or act of terrorism.

Politics at Its Best

For the last year I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to some personal essays on a National Public Radio show, “Morning Edition.” The segment, called “This I Believe,” features special guests who talk about the core beliefs that guide their daily lives. Recently, columnist Mark Shields’ commentary, titled “The People Have Spoken,” grabbed my attention and resonated with me.

Shields started off by saying he believes in politics, something few folks would probably admit, and said further: “In addition to being great fun, politics is basically the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate competing interests.”

Shields also confessed to a weakness of mine. He said he actually likes politicians, especially the courageous ones, like Harry Truman, who desegregated the armed forces, and Ronald Reagan, who opposed an initiative that would have banned gay teachers from public schools.

Shields also said, “At their worst, politicians — like the rest of us — can be petty, venal and self-centered. But I believe politics at its best can help to make ours a world where the powerful are truly more just and the poor are more secure.”

While many people might wonder what Shields has been smoking, his view is consistent with my own and my experience. I regularly come into contact with public officials who want nothing more than to serve their community or state with all their energy, intelligence and enthusiasm. They want to work together and “get the job done.” They wouldn’t dream of ignoring a major public problem.

Is California Governable?

For the past 10 years, many commentators, columnists and political scientists in California have been asking whether California is governable. One of my favorites has been Dan Walters, political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, who wondered recently whether the political dysfunction in California is now endemic. He has been writing long enough to see the state led by some strong individuals (the Jesse Unruhs, Ronald Reagans and Willie Browns), and he knows full well about the legends in the Governor’s Office during the mid-20th century: Earl Warren and Pat Brown.

Walters speaks to a lot of League audiences, and I sometimes address the same people before or after he does. He gives his much anticipated assessment of the extent to which our system of governance is broken, and I provide a more upbeat perspective.

When those in the audience wonder aloud what accounts for the difference between Walters and me, I often comment that I would be just as cynical if I spent as much time in the state Capitol as he does. I admit he has every reason to be cynical. I simply don’t share his cynicism.

Is This the Government We Deserve?

Another way to answer the question about whether California is governable is to ask should we, as citizens, tolerate anything less? Do we get the quality of governance we deserve or that we tolerate? I think most would agree it surely is not the former.

One of the ways the League and a host of others have expressed intolerance for inadequate governance regarding infrastructure needs has been to help form a coalition of statewide trade associations and local governments, the California Infrastructure Coalition (CIC), to advocate for greater state investment in infrastructure. On March 1, we held a news conference in Sacramento followed by three regional news conferences, during which we began counting down the number of days the Legislature and governor had remaining to reach agreement on “taking care of the next generation.”

The initial reaction to our demands for a bipartisan package on the June ballot was disbelief and anger. Some accused us of naiveté and meddling in this important negotiation, but the more they thought and talked about it, the more they actually tried to meet the deadline. No one who has seen the state Capitol become more partisan as a general election approaches could doubt the wisdom of trying to approve something for the June ballot.

While there was disappointment when the governor and legislative leadership failed to reach an agreement, I was proud that our coalition asked them to stretch and do the right thing. And in many respects they tried, but they came up short.

When this happens, however, I remember that former President Teddy Roosevelt said that it is not the critics who count, but “credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming … who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly ….”

We should remain intolerant of bad governance for our state and appreciate those who strive valiantly to do the people’s work. My hat is off to them. Now let’s get back to work.

This article appears in the May 2006 issue of Western City
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