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Reform to the left of me, reform to the right of me

“Reform,” like so many things, is in the eye of the beholder. The old saw says: Where you stand depends on where you’re sitting.

A Republican lawmaker’s idea of pension reform could be abomination to a Democratic colleague. Or vice versa.  

There is no ambiguity about “reformer,” though. It’s that machine used in Pilates.  

Reform, in any context, is defined as changing something to make it better. This notion that reform is positive appears to have developed over time.

There’s no other possibility since structurally the word is coldly neutral. Re-form: Change into something new.  Doesn’t say change into something better.

And thinking about reform in that less freighted way might clarify the goals of the scads of reform-minded individuals who are tossing around proposals like peanuts at a ballgame they allege will cure California’s ills.  

Perhaps scads is an understatement.

Tax reform. Welfare reform. Prison reform. Workers’ compensation reform. Education reform. Tort reform. Election reform. Foster care reform. Budget reform.
How about reform reform?

California’s godfather of reform is Hiram Johnson, elected governor in 1910, then to the U.S. Senate in 1916 where he served until 1945, dying the same day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Johnson ran a few audibles but mostly stuck to Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive playbook.

Fifteen, 44, Red, 22, Hut: Workers’ compensation. Blue, 32: Electing U.S. senators by popular vote. Women’s suffrage.

Johnson is most famous for giving Californians an end run around the Legislature through the power of initiative. Placed on the ballot in 1911.

The power of recall and referendum were created at the same time. Not much of a “reform,” thinks former Gov. Gray Davis – at least of recall.

Johnson thought Oregon’s system of R, R and I, adopted in 1902, worthy of replication in the Golden State. Didn’t hurt that he won election on an anti-Southern Pacific platform and that the Legislature was a wholly owned subsidiary of the railroad.

Was initiating the initiative process a reform? A change for the better? Johnson said so.

At least for a little while.

Within the first decade after initiatives could be placed directly on the ballot, interest groups were already using the process to get their way.

“It hasn’t worked out quite the way I thought but it’s still good for the people to have this power,” is how Mark Paul, co-author of “California Crack-Up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It” paraphrases Johnson’s reaction.

Given the unpleasantly naked power grabs and self-centric gluttony of most of the measures placed on the ballot over the past three decades – usually by paid signature-gathering companies spawned by the need to find enough names to place the initiatives before voters – it’s a safe supposition Johnson is spinning in his grave.

No lesson learned from Johnson’s experience with “reform.” Like the old Grateful Dead lyric says: “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t want to know.”

A two-year constitutional convention in the early 1960s led to the “reform” of a fulltime Legislature.

And, as part of that “reform,” the Legislature institutionalized the search for further “reform” with the “Little Hoover” Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy. It’s now – literally – tombstoned after its creator, the late Sen. Milton Marks of San Francisco.

Consider this assessment of what ails California: “State government is divided into too many parts. Administrative, policy and quasi-judicial functions are mixed together.”
Recommended solutions?

“Decrease fragmentation, increase responsiveness, maintain checks and balances.”  

And have a majority vote on the budget. Finally got around to that 14 years after the recommendations of the California Constitutional Revision Commission were presented to the governor and the Legislature.

Some of the commission’s recommendations were informed by the California Business-Higher Education Forum’s nightstand-caliber California Fiscal Reform: A Plan for Action and proposals by the California Citizen’s Budget Commission.

The reformistas are getting up an even bigger head of steam in the new millennium. Perhaps because the state is more broke than it was in the 20th century. And perhaps because the Internet empowers anyone, making it easy to propel their proposals into the ether.  

reThinkCali, (CQ) while a bit behind its initial timetable, says it’s hosting the world’s first virtual “reConstitutional e-Convention,” using Twitter and other social media to write a new California constitution.

Who’s the editor?

Prizes are offered – scholarships and iPads – for the best ideas.

Operating under the antithesis of “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it,” is California Forward, which says “we’ve come together to reclaim our power as citizens and fix our government.”
On the budget front, they advocate “multi-year fiscal planning” and implementing “rigorous performance reviews for all programs to ensure they are improving.”

California Forward is fond of the job of drawing legislative district boundaries after the census being in the hands of a 14-member commission, rather than legislators.

They got their wish with Proposition 11 in 2008 and Proposition 20 in 2010.  They also favor the change in the primary election wrought by Proposition 14 in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the November general election.

Newest to join the reformista ranks is Nicolas Berggruen who the press calls the “homeless billionaire” because he doesn’t own a house. Traveling around the world in a private jet and living in swanky hotels doesn’t seem quite like holding a hand-scrawled piece of cardboard at a busy intersection looking for a handout but, hey, it’s the media. What do they know?

Berggruen, 49, has created the “Think Long Committee for California.”

Curious nomenclature unless there are “Think Long” committees planned for other states.

Berggruen puts a smidge of his money where his mouth is: $20 million. Former Gov. Davis, a committee member, thinks this should be seed money.

At his institute’s website, Berggruen says this money “will not support a single candidacy or a single issue but only those structural and constitutional changes that will break the present gridlock (and) make government more responsive and efficient.”

Cool. The committee is supposed to have that blueprint on the governor’s desk by mid-2011 although in a conversation with the Sacramento Bee editorial board, Berggruen said “we will be at this for years.”

Google’s CEO along with former Speaker of the Assembly and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown are among the members of the committee.

So is former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who appears to be the reformista with the biggest sombrero and the double bandoliers because he is also co-chair of California Forward.

Great to have the state’s future in such capable hands. Go for the gold, guys.

But remember it’s just changes being proposed. Re-forming the status quo. And not necessarily
for the better.

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