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While California Slept

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While England Slept, written by Winston Churchill in 1938, focused on Britain's lack of preparation in the face of Nazi Germany's military expansion across Europe. Churchill was critical of the Munich Agreement, negotiated by several European heads of state, including Britain's Neville Chamberlain.

The Munich Agreement opened the door to Nazi expansion into Czechoslovakia.

After decades of false balanced budgets, legislating through the initiative process, the inability to get a budget on time, the California recall of Gov. Gray Davis, the looming $42 billion deficit along with the associated catastrophes, it might not be a bad idea for someone, inspired by Churchill, to write, While California Slept chronicling the decades of mismanagement that has brought the Golden State to its present place.

Does anyone remember the rationale for the 2003 recall? I remember being on the UC Berkeley campus the day of the recall election, a student told me they planned to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger because "it would be cool to have the Terminator sign my diploma."
There is clearly nothing cool about California's current economic state. But whom should we blame for the current quagmire? Is it the fault of irresponsible tax and spend Democrats or rigid dogmatic Republicans?

Not even the threat of the marathon sessions or possibly laying off as many as 20,000 state employees proved to be a successful motivator as the Legislature, as of this writing, was searching for that lone Republican vote to get a budget passed that includes a tax increase.
In our wayward cause and effect philosophy, blaming one of these two groups would certainly feed our self-justifying apathetic impulses. It would make things easy -- too easy I suspect.

That's not to say that the Legislature does not bear some responsibility. It is a bipartisan lot of elected officials with Über safe seats, many of whom may actually pay more of a political price for compromising than not making a deal.

But as it is the case with most public policy dilemmas the news-making item, which in this case is the failure get a budget deal with looming calamitous consequences on the horizon, is merely the residue of a more complex problem.

For decades, the California electorate has been buying the overvalued fools gold of direct democracy. We actually believed, based on our votes, we could make better-informed decisions via the initiative process than the individuals we sent to represent us in Sacramento.

Californians passed the most draconian term limits initiative in the country. It robbed legislators of institutional memory, placed disincentives for members of the opposite party to crossover and make a deal, and its insidious underlying purpose was to get rid of a single individual -- former California Speaker Willie Brown.

The passing of Proposition 13, while still popular, carries that little 2/3-vote requirement to raise revenues, hence the tyranny of the minority. Proposition 98, though perhaps on paper a worthy cause, ties the Legislature's hands in term of what resources are actually available in the budget.

However, getting that one Republican to vote for the budget may address the immediate concerns, it does nothing for what is truly ailing the state. Whatever the outcome on the particular budget crisis, little is being done to address California's ongoing structural problems.

The national economic woes means that California, like every other state, will have a huge revenue decrease. The problem for California it has long had an imbalance between what it brings in, and what it spends in state government. This has never been addressed.

As a result it has been decades since California was able to put away resources in a "rainy day" fund. In those 22 years of failing get a budget complete by constitutionally mandated date, California has been kicking the can down the road with accounting gimmicks.

As much as I would like to blame the dysfunctional Legislature, we the voter have aided and abetted its creation. While California slept, we supported the catnap with a series of initiatives. As the comic strip Pogo so famously opined years ago, "I've seen the enemy and it is us."

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