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The State of California is rapidly evolving as immigrants and non-white populations increase. But are the govenrnmental institutions changng? Peter Schrag writes about the fractured attempts at reforming existing insitutions while Dan Walters reviews voting disparities.

Reforming California

Many groups have big ideas on the critical issues facing the state, but are they thinking too small?

By Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee Columnist, September 24, 2006

Ten years ago Gov. Pete Wilson's blue-ribbon Constitutional Revision Commission proposed a long list of ideas to reform California government. Most were promptly forgotten.

Since then we've had an accumulation of additional reform proposals, some from governmental commissions, many from a proliferation of private good-government organizations. With a few exceptions, they've focused on narrow and relatively uncontroversial objectives: Easing term limits; revising or eliminating constitutional auto-pilot spending formulas; lowering the two-thirds majority requirement in the Legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes; taking the power to draw legislative and congressional districts from the Legislature and giving it to a nonpartisan commission; restoring some fiscal authority to local governments; reforming the initiative process. Most were either ignored or rejected by the voters.

As worthy as these proposals are, there are even more important issues that aren't getting the attention they require. Are we thinking too big, or thinking too small? Is the conversation we are having in California really about the issues and questions that matter most?

Nearly everyone in the California establishment -- academics, civic leaders, journalists, public commissions and a growing roster of private reform groups -- believes the state's angry electorate urgently wants things fixed and that the convoluted, nonresponsive system is driving California ever deeper into deficits and gridlock. The recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 was widely read as a voter revolt against the system.

But, is it also possible that voters prefer the status quo to the devil they don't know? Given the state's dramatic demographic and economic changes, its ethnic divisions, and the fears about jobs, health care, pensions, outsourcing and immigration, is it possible that California voters may like a little gridlock and a dysfunctional government that doesn't do all that much?

The new California urgently requires the thoughtful dialogue that only private organizations -- unhampered by political agendas and dedicated to fostering more public awareness -- can effectively generate. At this moment, a lot of the most crucial issues are too hot for politicians and public commissions.

There are several: The connected questions of tax policy and growth management; the chasm between the voters and the general population; the growing gap between California's haves and have-nots. But probably the most crucial is the impact of immigration on the economy and public services, a subject now largely left to radio talk frothers, bloggers and partisan activists.

In California, where immigrants constitute 26 percent of the population, the high rate of intermarriage is quickly making all the old ethnic categories obsolete, and links to other nations -- economic, technological, social, cultural -- have become a major feature of the landscape. We may be more part of the global world than any other place on earth.

Nearly 70 percent of California's electorate is non-Hispanic white, even though whites make up only 46 percent of the population. Those voters are older, more affluent and have fewer school-age children. As reported in a Public Policy Institute of California survey earlier this month, they're more conservative on a wide range of issues than the population as a whole.

Are those voters anxious about, if not fearful of, the potential political power of California's growing minority population? Would they prefer that the levers of government be just a little harder to work?

It wouldn't be unprecedented in American history: A century ago, progressive reform was energized by similar fears -- industrialization, urban machines and the growing numbers of Irish, Italians, Poles and other Eastern European immigrants. The framers wrote a complex system of checks and balances into the U.S. Constitution in large part because they feared the power of unchecked popular majorities.

It's possible that many of us -- to spread the responsibility liberally -- are too concerned with restoration of the cozy world and political institutions of the past and not concerned enough with the new and radically different California that's grown around us.

The gridlock on immigration reform in Congress reflects Americans' deep ambivalence about immigration, legal and illegal. We want the labor but not the people; we chafe at the strain on public services but don't want immigrant children to be denied an education.

But much of that ambivalence rests on dated and sometimes flatly false information. Because many voters are reluctant to support generous public services that are perceived to be going to people different from themselves or to trust government that seems too responsive to others, the misapprehensions may themselves be among the largest barriers to the good government the reformers long for.

Essayist Richard Rodriguez points out that the children born in California now don't look like their grandparents. Many come from families that include citizens and legal and illegal immigrants, as well as countless relatives in Mexico or El Salvador or India. But those children also will be the workers on whose skills and education the future of California's economy will depend. We live on a border that looks ever more like a region, and not a line.

In fact, most of the growth of the Latino and Asian populations is generated by natural increase -- births -- not by current immigration. The California economy has grown substantially in the past 15 years, despite the growth of immigrant families and despite two recessions, one largely caused by downturns in aerospace, the other in high-tech, neither of which had anything to do with immigration.

Major economic indicators for California were better in 2004 than they were in 1990, says Steve Levy, who heads the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. The state unemployment rate was lower in 2004 than in 1990, and while all wages have trailed economic growth, California's average wages have risen faster than the nation's.

Because of the low skills of some immigrants, their fiscal impact on local and state governments -- the difference between what they and their children cost in public services and what they pay in taxes has been negative. They've depressed wages of low-skilled workers, though it's not certain how much or with what consequences.

But in a report commissioned by the state's Labor and Workforce Development Agency issued a year ago, Levy points out that "single period analyses fail to take into account the long-term fiscal impact as immigrants move through the work force." Those analyses treat education -- by far the largest cost -- as a cost item only and not as an investment with future benefits for the economy and the public treasury.

Nor has there been much attention on the dynamics of immigration, on the fact that a growing proportion of California's immigrant population has been here 10 years or more or on the rate at which they and their children are assimilating. No one asks about the lack of consistency in laws that grant in-state college tuition to illegal immigrant graduates of California schools but don't allow them to drive or get financial aid.

There is still too little hard data -- beyond rhetoric -- and even less serious discussion about the economic difference between a California future with an educated and skilled work force, much of it inevitably Asian, black and Latino, and one without it. More broadly, the realities of California's demographics, economy and the links of its people with other nations -- a California altogether different from what it was 40 years ago -- are wildly out of sync with a lot of traditional assumptions.

Given the regionalization of the border, do the state and nation require multinational institutions and arrangements on an array of common issues -- crime, drugs, commerce, labor, resources, environment, health, immigration -- that have barely been imagined, let alone debated? NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, allows the movement of goods and capital across the Mexican and Canadian borders, but takes no account of its profound impact on workers. It was supposed to reduce the economic pressure driving Mexicans north, but if anything has had the opposite effect. What would be the impact, as now seems possible, of an increasingly unstable Mexico?

That's not to question the importance of many of the items on the current agenda. Voices of Reform, a project of San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, has worked intensively on redistricting. The New California Network is aimed primarily at ending California's fiscal crises. Common Sense California seeks to address "the fundamental disconnection and lack of trust between the people of California and those we have elected to make the vital investments and decisions that will affect our quality of life." The Sacramento-based Western chapter of the New America Foundation wants to create a citizen assembly, as British Columbia has done, to develop a reform agenda.

Some have business and/or foundation funding. Some like the long-established Common Cause are member organizations. Next Ten, which is focused on educating voters about the budget process, is funded by its director, venture capitalist and philanthropist Noel Perry. It has an online "budget challenge" at www.calregions.org/statepolicy/nextten.html, asking participants to figure out the trade-offs -- the tax increases and/or spending cuts (which and how much) -- to balance the state budget.

The leadership is largely middle-class professionals, centrist politicians and ex-politicians, and business executives -- though rarely a labor leader -- looking for change in a state where, in their view at least, political extremes tend to dominate.

At their conferences, they draw from a common class of speakers: Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat, and Keith Richman, a Republican, the Legislature's two-man "bipartisan caucus;" Bill Hauck, who chaired the California Constitutional Revision Commission a decade ago and now directs the California Business Roundtable; Dan Schnur, former Gov. Pete Wilson's communications director; Bob Stern, co-author of the California Political Reform Act and Tracy Westen, both of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles; former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and his friend David Abel, who chaired two speakers' commissions, one on state and local finance, the other on reform of the initiative process.

Maybe the oddest couple in this year's round of reformism was Hertzberg and former Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, engineers of California's 2001 incumbent-protection gerrymander. "We know as well as anyone," they wrote in an op-ed for The Bee, "how the process really works -- and doesn't work -- for the state and its people."

Like their predecessors at the turn of the last century, today's reformers look back to a time when government seemed to work. Unlike them, their efforts -- many of them worthwhile and in some cases urgent -- have had only limited success. Sen. Alan Lowenthal's SCA 3, a redistricting reform bill that's been kicked around the Legislature for more than a year, once again failed to pass, despite the earnest promises of the leadership and the work of Voices of Reform. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's entire reform agenda, some of it left over from earlier proposals, crashed in last year's special election.

Those votes may have been more a consequence of the weakness of the particulars than a rejection of the basic idea. But they also raise the possibility that the elite reform agenda, most of which is about governmental process, lacks traction when broader issues -- the impact of immigration, the new economy, the new California society -- overshadow everything and beg to be addressed.

Some major California foundations are now having private discussions about where to concentrate their efforts. If they and other reformers want to think big and enlarge the conversation about the state's future, there are pressing issues and projects worthy of their investment and dedication -- and of public attention.

California conundrum: Widening gap between voters, nonvoters

By Dan Walters , Sacramento Bee Columnist, September 24, 2006

Two decades ago, in a series of articles for The Bee that later became a book about California's socioeconomic, demographic and political trends, I noted the increasing disparity between the state's rapidly changing population and its relatively static electorate and reached this conclusion:

"And as the state moves into the 21st century, the most likely political scenario is for dominance by an affluent, politically active overclass using its position to protect its privileges against the larger but weaker underclass."

The theory I advanced in 1985, and fleshed out in dozens of subsequent columns over the years, has become proven fact, as a new treatise from the Public Policy Institute of California demonstrates.

"As (California's) population has burgeoned, its voting rolls have not kept pace," PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare says in "California's Exclusive Electorate," adding, "As its population has become more diverse, its voters have become less representative of that population. And the difference between voters and nonvoters is especially stark in attitudes toward government's role; elected officials; and many social issues, policies and programs."

What PPIC describes as "the growing gap between voters and nonvoters" first became evident in the 1980s, thanks to improving techniques for interviewing samples of voters as they left the polls. The main purpose of such exit polls was to predict the outcome of elections before the actual votes were counted, but exit pollsters also asked voters about their cultural, ethnic, economic and demographic characteristics, which could then be compared to the characteristics of the larger adult population.

At the time, California's non-Latino white population was starting to shrink, or at least stagnate, due to a low birthrate, aging of the baby boom generation, low migration rates and other factors, while those of nonwhite populations, especially Latinos, were expanding due to high birthrates and immigration. But voters clearly were older, whiter, better educated and more affluent than nonvoters, and ever since, the gap has widened. Voters' characteristics have remained largely unchanged for the past couple of decades, while those of the overall population have changed dramatically. Whites, for example, dropped to below 50 percent of the population in the 1990s but remain more than 70 percent of voters.

Politicians often found themselves confronting the gap between what their voters wanted and what their constituents might prefer. Since voters are also overwhelmingly homeowners, for example, Proposition 13, the state's landmark property tax limitation law, remains popular and politically unassailable, but as PPIC's polling of nonvoters (most of whom are renters) points out, if they were casting ballots, Proposition 13 might well be changed to increase the tax bite on property owners.

The gap on Proposition 13 exemplifies the guts of the PPIC report -- that if today's nonvoters were to suddenly begin voting, California would see a sharp political turn to the left. It would become a truly blue state, rather than one liberal on social issues but conservative on taxes and crime.

Aha, one might then conclude, the Democrats could go out, organize the unorganized and achieve political hegemony. Yes, that's theoretically true, but so far it hasn't happened. In fact, the past couple of decades have seen a sharp shrinkage of the Democrats' share of registered voters, from well over 50 percent to scarcely 40 percent, while the Republican share has remained constant at around 35-36 percent -- the smallest registration margin in more than 70 years. The two parties, as PPIC points out, have exactly as many voters as they did in 1990, some 12 million, while all of the net growth in the electorate since then has been in the "decline to state" category.

There's no doubt that the characteristic gap will continue to widen, given the demographic forces now in play, and as it does (and as turnout of even registered voters continues to shrink), it will mean that fewer and fewer voters will be making decisions for more and more nonvoters -- and that California's politics will become even more disconnected from reality.

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Last modified: Septemer 24, 2006

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