Re-engaging California's Citizens: The Real Job of Reform

Re-engaging California's Citizens: The Real Job of Reform

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A USC/L.A. Times poll last month generated the kind of reaction that digs California deeper into the stale status quo. After indicating that they were unwilling to cut services and unwilling to raise taxes, voters were once again berated—by news media and policy makers alike— for seeming contrary. The conclusion around Sacramento was that politicians would be on their own to make the tough choices on behalf of a petulant electorate. And since the people probably won’t agree to raise taxes, as the conventional wisdom goes, the state has a long, ugly, miserable road ahead. The elites advocating for change could see only one possible bright light at the end of the tunnel: that the extended trauma of this unyielding recession might eventually lead the rest of us to acknowledge the need for some governance reforms.

Is that the best scenario we can come up with? I don’t want that for my state, and neither do you. Yes, Californians are facing some agonizing choices. But we’re also suffering from a severe lack of civic imagination—ironic in a state known for its innovation and creativity. Years of budget crises, contradictory reform efforts, and increasingly polarized politics have worn us down. Then the economic downturn took just about all that was left of our vitality. California is listless, our civic “chi” depleted, our psychic reserves as empty as our financial ones.

Why are we so stuck? The relationship between the public and public officials has reached epic dysfunction. Public trust of state lawmakers is at an all-time low. If your sleazy relative asks you for more money (“You again?!”), your very sensible instinct is to say no. If he tells you that if you don’t give him the money, he’ll stop being able to function, you don’t believe him. He always seems to find a way to keep himself in a lifestyle at least as good, if not better, than your own.

Meanwhile, the partisan political atmosphere discourages balanced discussion of the issues. Trusted channels of nonpartisan information—in accessible language and formats—are few and far between. Politicians from both parties feed the public’s wishful thinking that the answer is simply in shutting down the mythical Department of Waste, Fraud and Abuse. And while for some Californians, the impacts of budget cuts to date are painfully real, for more voters than not, the implications of additional cuts are still mostly removed from their personal experience. In the context of low trust and low comprehension, voters’ consistent reluctance to raise taxes and/or accept any service cuts make sense.

SIDEBAR: Re-engaging California's Citizens: A Six-Step Plan

Of course, Californians are not blameless in this co-dependent dance—they’re complicit with the very lawmakers they distrust. Reacting to piecemeal initiatives, they’ve sent a series of contradictory messages that have put lawmakers in a further bind (such as limiting revenue via Proposition 13 and filling the prisons under Three Strikes). They have looked the other way during successive years of short-term gimmicks, overly optimistic forecasts and raiding Peter to placate Paul.

The recent budget and education summits convened by Governor-elect Jerry Brown have been an important first step in “getting real.” The curtain has been pulled back on the troubling consequences of decades of short-term tactics and magical thinking. There appears to be agreement among lawmakers about having finally reached the year of “fiscal reckoning.” But the question remains as to whether a deeply frustrated California citizenry will be willing and able to participate constructively in the tough choice-making ahead for all of us.

Current reports are that Brown will unveil two budgets on January 10— an “all cuts” version and a version that involves fewer (albeit still very serious) cuts, accompanied by revenue increases that would have to be approved by the voters. Let’s have a third scenario: a “five-year vision budget and plan” that lays out how Californians can be part of achieving new forms of social as well as economic vitality. Without minimizing the pain ahead of us, a more collaborative, collective, long-term view would help put the “bleak” and “bleaker” options presented in January into a context that rallies us rather than divides us further.

At the very moment that the fear of more budget trauma is limiting our imaginative capacity, we need to challenge ourselves to think more expansively. Instead of asking people just to “sacrifice” by suffering more cuts and possibly chipping in more taxes, California’s incoming governor and lawmakers should be asking us to “contribute” all of ourselves—not just our money but our energy and ideas. The world is waiting for the California trailblazers to once again lead the way. Let’s show the world that the goals of a vibrant economy, access to quality lifelong learning, environmental health and increased equity are, in fact, achievable and mutually reinforcing.

Yes, even in the face of the $28 billion deficit—especially in the face of the enormity of this deficit —our new governor, lawmakers, civic leaders and the public can begin shaping a new narrative of what’s possible for our state. Next year is the 100th anniversary of major California reforms, such as direct democracy (the initiative and recall processes) and women’s right to vote. We can rise to the challenges that face us and seize this historic moment— inviting all Californians to participate in reinventing new ways of governing ourselves.

Instead of treating Californians as just taxpayers, voters or service recipients, let’s call on each other to help co-create a new way of organizing how we do the public’s work. That doesn’t mean that we won’t still have three or four really tough years ahead of us, but by inviting citizens to be part of the solution, we are taking advantage of our state’s greatest resource.

Susan Stuart Clark is founded and director of Common Knowledge, a nonpartisan organization committed to expanding civic engagement as a means to a more inclusive and vibrant democracy.