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Optimistic About California

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I'm an optimist by nature. In the glass-half-full, glass-half-empty debate - I'm the guy who is happy there's a glass.

When I served as Speaker of the California Assembly, even during the energy crisis, I kept in my office a framed copy of Alexander Graham Bell's quote: "problems are nothing more than opportunities in working clothes."

So why is it that even an optimist like me wakes up these days with a pit in his stomach?

With more than two million Californians out of work, cities declaring bankruptcy and our state's budget in a perennial state of crisis, it feels like Rome is burning. There's a loss of hope, a sense that our once unshakable confidence is gone, maybe for good.

The fundamental question is, is there a way forward?

My answer is yes. Because for all that's gone wrong in California lately - we've still got a lot going for us.

Around the world - no matter where I go - people recognize our state and want to be part of it. In India, in China, in Europe, they see California as a center of global innovation - a place where new ideas get their start and take hold.

That's the kind of global reputation that most places can only dream of. You won't hear that about Arkansas or Iowa - or even about Taiwan or Shanghai. It's unique to California - it's our brand.

The world is full of places competing against one another to be the next workshop - mass producing the goods that wind up in our stores and shopping malls. California can't win playing at that game - and we'd be foolish to try.

While manufacturing may provide a short-term shot in the arm to a state or a country, long-term it's a race to the bottom. There will always be a new player willing to make more with less - lower wages, fewer environmental laws and lax protections for workers.

Our best bet - and our edge in the world's competitive marketplace - is not as a sweatshop but as an R&D shop. California is the place where the best and the brightest from around the world want to come, share ideas, experiment, and invent the future.

The trouble is, our outdated system of government is working against us.

When our state can't get a budget approved, and starts issuing IOUs and laying off teachers - we risk the world seeing us differently. As incompetents rather than innovators. As losers rather than leaders. As pedestrians rather than peak performers.

We can't afford to continue destroying our global reputation for the sake of petty politics at the State Capitol. The stakes are too high, and the consequences to great. In our current system of political stalemate, no one wins. We all lose.

What to do about it? Start with common-sense budget reforms that take the best practices from other states and put them to work here in California, so we get more responsible budgets on time.

That means setting clear goals for every program, strict oversight to be sure we're getting results, and considering the long-term costs of new programs or tax cuts before they go on the books. It also means approving the budget by a majority vote, so that a small number of politicians can't hold up the entire state.

But we need to do even more - by rethinking the role of local government. People don't trust Sacramento to deliver results - in part because it's so disconnected from their daily lives.

It's time to devolve power - both funding and authority - to levels of government that are closer to the people. That does two important things: first, it helps re-engage the public and restore trust and confidence. You're much more likely to get involved with - and pay attention to - government services you can see, touch, and use.

But just as important, giving communities and regions more authority over the programs and services they offer means a healthy competition among them to deliver the best results.

Protections must be in place to be sure basic fairness. But wouldn't it be interesting to see different parts of California experiment and innovate - rather than continue the top-down approach dictated by the state.

Such reforms would be far more in keeping with California's global reputation for innovation than the one-size-fits-all formulas we get from Sacramento. That alone would make reform a worthy experiment for an R&D state like California.