Bringing all sides together: A crucial battle for the state’s future

The choice is simple: plowshares or swords?

Inside the state Capitol and out, among legislators, lobbyists and consultants, the big players in California’s ongoing initiative wars are once again preparing for battle.

The depth of the economic downturn, and the unprecedented depth and breadth of cuts to state and local services, has raised the stakes for everyone involved. For those with the means, the temptation is to go on offense – using the 2010 ballot box to achieve long-cherished goals.

As a result, the nature of the proposals being considered has changed dramatically in size and scale. Business may get behind reducing the Legislature to part-time status. Public employees may push to do away with the 2/3rds majority vote requirement for raising taxes. Local governments – and perhaps others – may try to win back what they lost in the budget process.

But there are risks involved. Historically, most initiatives fail at the polls, especially once organized and funded opposition emerges.

The most likely result? Everyone shoots for the moon, spends money by the truckload, draws fire from their adversaries, and comes up short on Election Day.

When the dust settles, everyone limps back to their respective corner. Nothing changes.

But that’s just not acceptable this time around. Not with our state struggling to deliver basic services and our budget perpetually mired in red ink. Not in a competitive global marketplace where other states and nations are poised to take advantage of our weakness.

At California Forward, we believe it’s essential to avoid the calamity of another round of counterproductive ballot measures. And we believe there’s an alternative – bringing all sides together behind a comprehensive reform that overhauls our budget process, brings government closer to the people and creates a more accessible and accountable state.

Our goal is fundamental change: government that’s small enough to listen, big enough to tackle real problems, smart enough to spend our money wisely in good times and bad, and honest enough to be held accountable for results.

After examining dozens of policy options, culling the very best practices from our own communities and from states across the country, we’ve found that California lacks many of the tools other states use to better manage themselves.

Let’s start with the state budget. Our antiquated budget system gives neither the Governor nor the Legislature much time or much incentive to thoroughly examine the work of state agencies – what we’re getting for our money. No sooner do we pass one budget than work begins on the next.

It’s time to give this process a much-needed overhaul that restores incentives for our different branches of government to start keeping an eye on each other again.

Our plan replaces short-term “budget year” thinking with a long-term strategy. Instead, the plan calls for a two-year, “rolling” budget — so that we’re always thinking two years ahead — and a three-year plan for capital investments.

 The plan creates budgets that don’t simply set spending levels for programs, but also define each agency’s goals and mission, and clearly measures how well it’s performing – with incentives for good results and consequences when things go off track. And it establishes a pay-as-you-go process that matches the costs of new programs with the dollars to pay for them right from the start.

These steps alone would be a huge improvement. But we believe there’s even more work to be done at the structural level – the complex relationship between state and local government.

The plan recognizes that most services are best delivered at the local level, and gives communities the tools and the freedom to solve their own problems and meet their own needs.

 It’s time to rethink the relationship between the state and local government, with a strong preference for government that’s closer to people — and that fosters the kind collaboration that lets communities capitalize on their strengths.

We also need political reform that restores the confidence citizens have lost in their leaders. That means modifying term limits to discourage politicians from constantly jumping from job to job — and reducing the number of votes required to pass a budget to a simple majority while preserving the 2/3rds majority requirement to raise taxes. But it also means requiring officeholders to spend more time in the communities they represent.

Candidly, our plan isn’t perfect, or without risks. The Legislature has the power to place the entire plan before voters as a constitutional revision. Otherwise, the plan we’ve developed will have to be divided into multiple initiatives – with all the costs and dangers associated with that process.

It also won’t make great fodder for the typical initiative wars we’ve come to expect with every campaign season. And it doesn’t give any of the big players in California’s initiative wars the kind of victory they may be hoping for.

Then again, it wasn’t designed to do either of those things.

But it was created to dramatically change things for the better.

Imagine living in a state where responsible budgets passed on time, without the perennial battles over state and local funding.

Imagine a California where the legislative and executive branches had new incentives to keep close tabs on how well our laws and our programs are working – delivering better results for the people we serve.

We can have that kind of California — if enough of us are willing to put down our swords and fight for it.

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