California Politics: Some last thoughts on Golden State governing
BY JOHN MYERS, SACRAMENTO BUREAU CHIEF |
Early in the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the iconic Republican was getting grilled with questions from reporters during a state Capitol press conference when I happened to ask him something — the topic escapes me all these years later — that was apparently too much.
“You reporters,” Schwarzenegger said, pointing to me and flashing the half grimace-half smile he made famous in the movies. “You’re so nosy.”
The crowd laughed. For me, it was a badge of honor.
Of course, we might call it curiosity, an insatiable appetite for facts and information. It’s been a huge part of my life for almost 29 years — the vast majority as a statehouse journalist. Five governors, hundreds of legislators and ballot measures and a state budget that’s gone from a $40-billion deficit to a $97-billion surplus.
This newsletter is, at least for now, a final installment of that journey, my last dispatch for The Times from Sacramento. My colleagues will take over writing duties as I step down for a job in the public sector, watching politics from inside the beast for a while.
I thought I’d set sail from my post not with a lot of reminiscing but instead with a few observations about California’s government, both those who are elected to lead it and the role of citizens in making it all work.
Who makes California’s budget complicated? We do
Elected officials often say that California’s budget is a reflection of shared values, a reminder that its billions of dollars in spending are about improving people’s lives.
But there’s perhaps no state with a budget as confusing, and often contradictory, as ours. Californians have tinkered with the rules at the ballot box so often that the directives sometimes overlap and twist elected budget writers into knots.
If only voters knew how it all worked. Many years of polling by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that most respondents couldn’t correctly identify the single largest expense in the state’s general fund. Prisons, they’d say, or maybe transportation? No, it’s K-12 schools and community colleges — roughly 40 cents of every general fund dollar spent.
But in those same surveys, PPIC pollsters would ask whether voters had more trust in themselves or legislators to make budget decisions. Most voters always picked themselves.
Consider what that means: Voters want to make budget decisions but don’t understand where the money is spent.
It was voters who set in place the school spending rules while also slashing property taxes, imposing extra taxes on the wealthy, setting the size of “rainy day” reserve funds and limiting legislative efforts to impose new fees. The power of California’s initiative process ensures voters and legislators both have their hands on state government’s steering wheel.
Additional mandates could be imposed in November that, while well-intentioned, might further complicate things: a mandate for school arts and music spending that would come out of non-education funds and income tax hikes on the ultra-wealthy to subsidize pandemic prevention efforts and zero-emission vehicles.
And once voters write the rules, it’s very hard to rewrite them. The most important axiom of California politics is that powerful interest groups like the status quo and will fight like crazy to maintain it.
California’s highest glass ceiling
The portraits of 38 California governors hang on the walls of the historic state Capitol (yes, Gov. Gavin Newsom is the 40th governor but he won’t get one until he leaves office and former Gov. Jerry Brown is counted twice but has only one painting).
It’s hard to miss what they all have in common: For 172 years, California’s governors have all been white men. That’s not so surprising about the years leading up to the mid-20th century, given the variety of past cultural and legal barriers related to race and gender. But the glass ceiling will remain intact, even in the event of a stunning upset in November, for a while longer.
Might that finally change in 2026? There are plenty of dynamic women and politicians of color in California. That includes four incumbents in statewide office plus mayors of big cities and many members of the Legislature. While it’s a bit more challenging to find as much diversity among the ranks of Republicans, there are some up-and-coming Latino and Asian American GOP politicians worth watching.
This is a streak that should end and soon. It’s time for a few different portraits to soon hang on those historic Capitol walls.
Access isn’t the problem with voting
Much of my career as a politics and government journalist has been filled with writing about election operations. It was a bit of a sleepy assignment in the days before false accusations about rampant fraud. Even so, California has often led the national conversation on election security, as it did some 15 years ago with mandates that touch-screen devices produce paper records to verify a voter’s choices.
But to borrow a thought shared with me recently by one voter advocate, California’s challenge isn’t access to voting — elected officials have made that incredibly easy — but rather a refusal by state officials to consistently fund elections and voter education.
It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that California conducted a statewide election Tuesday. There were actually 58 elections, one in each county where slightly different processes rely on adequate funding. State lawmakers have been eager to expand access — ballots in the mail with prepaid postage envelopes, extra time for ballots to be received, more full-service voting locations, election day registration — but less likely to assess the fiscal impact and provide consistent, robust taxpayer funding. Far too often, counties have to fall back on local dollars that would otherwise be spent on community services.
More statehouse sunlight
Californians should feel good knowing that there’s more transparency now in how legislators do their work than at any time in my quarter-century of watching state government.
The biggest change came in 2016, with the creation of a 72-hour rule for public review of bills before any final vote, putting an end to many of the controversial efforts crafted in the shadows during the final hours of a legislative session. Online information sites have improved, too, for the public to read proposed laws. And there’s a relatively robust option for livestreams of state Senate and Assembly activities.
But there’s still noticeable opacity. Twice a year, legislators still quickly shuffle hundreds of big and small spending proposals through an appropriations process where bills can be killed without a public vote — denying Californians the chance to hold legislators accountable. Meanwhile, the Legislature has made strides since efforts in 2017 by The Times and other news outlets to force more disclosure of legislative harassment complaints and settlements paid with taxpayer funds — although a number of decisions remain protected by the Legislative Open Records Act, a state law that allows legislators to operate under more secrecy than other government agencies.
One issue still to be resolved concerns public testimony during committee hearings. The COVID-19 pandemic forced lawmakers to allow access by phone and not just to those who have time to get off work and travel to Sacramento for an in-person comment. Some legislators seem reluctant to keep that in place — the call-in system has had its share of audio problems and those who choose to scream and yell — but going back to the old ways would strike a blow against increased public participation.
Wanted: Capitol reporters
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out how few journalists cover statehouses across the nation compared with how many cover national politics and government in Washington. State capitols like ours in Sacramento are where decisions are made that directly affect the lives of residents — taxes, criminal justice, investments in schools and roads and environmental protection and much more.
In Sacramento, I’ve watched as journalists writing for dozens of California communities have disappeared because of the tough economics of the news industry and a lack of interest by some news executives. The Times had a bureau in the capital city of 14 journalists when I arrived to work in radio news. We now have five reporters, our venerable columnist George Skelton and me.
Next week, that will shrink by one. Journalism depends on readers and revenue — and it’s my hope you’ll continue to support this newspaper. I’m grateful to my colleagues and to readers. Here’s hoping you’ll stay engaged about your government and those elected to serve California.