February 27, 2004 - From the February, 2004 issue

Senator Vasconcellos Proposes Sweeping Reforms To State Government With SCA 14

California's dysfunctional system of governance was on full display to the world during last year's recall election. Yet, real attempts to fix the problems and right the ship have had a hard time getting traction in the Legislature and among the public. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Senator John Vasconcellos, in which he addresses the need for reform and his perspective on the changing Legislature after over 30 years in office.


John Vasconcellos

Let's begin with a focus upon SCA 14, the Political Reform Amendment of 2004. The bill has some sweeping changes in mind for California's governance structure. Please elaborate, as SCA 14's author, both on what necessitates this bill and on its key provisions.

The state's government is gridlocked and paralyzed almost to the point of being dysfunctional. In an essay I published late last year, I identified 13 strikes that make California ungovernable and dysfunctional. They include: a reapportionment plan that's too partisan; elections that are too long and cynical and shallow; campaigns way too expensive; districts way too large–constituencies that are too huge; and a variety of other factors.

SCA 14 is my effort, before I retire this November, to put on the ballot a proposal that would profoundly amend our state constitution and make California governable again, restoring democracy. With SCA 14, we'd have public financing of campaigns and move the primaries to September; require consultants to register and take ethics courses and refrain from lobbying; assure independents the right to vote in whichever primary they want; require candidates to debate in prime time; provide for a budget to be adopted by a majority vote; and, we'd create smaller districts so we have more legislators better able to serve their constituents more appropriately.

This amendment really intends to redo the entirety of our state government and electoral process so that California's citizens again have a real say in their government. Then the government would belong to them, instead of to the special interests that now contribute millions of dollars for legislative campaigns.

John, you're the senior member of the Legislature. You've seen it evolve from one of the most respected representative bodies in the country to, as you called it, "dysfunctional." What's contributed to its demise?

The money in campaigns has certainly caused great deterioration. The institution of term limits means that nobody other than the few of us leftover from before term limits has much experience in the Legislature. There's no memory and no sense of history, there's no mentoring and little seasoning, there's no sense of common purpose or common destiny and, as a result, there is little inclination towards collaboration.

In addition, the money in campaigns is so enormous, it is contaminating. Campaigns are so long and cynical. All folks ever hear in the campaign from each side is how bad the other person is. Then, all you hear from the press regarding whoever survives that process is how bad he or she is.

So, it's not surprising people have lost their confidence in us, and we're not here long enough to be able to rebuild that confidence.

With the many Blue Ribbon Commission reports that have been written over the last decade all proposing reforms, what gives you hope that the Legislature will take action now on a bill as comprehensive and candid as SCA 14?

Well, four things. First, the situation is so dire, everybody knows now that it's got to be fixed; that wasn't the case before. Second, my proposal is so broad that there's plenty that just about everybody can like, together with something that everybody dislikes. It's got so much in it, everybody can recognize from what their own point of view that, on balance, it's an upgrade, a substantial improvement overall-no matter their particular perspective. Third, the public is really fed up with the state of our state government and politics, and it's time they reclaim the government from the special interests, and instead make it their own. Fourth, many of the lobbyists themselves are sick and tired of being tapped for money to attend yet another fund-raiser almost every night of the year up here in the Capitol.

Respond to those who would push back and argue for an initiative rather than a legislative bill.

My position is that if we put it on the ballot via the Legislature, we can put more in it and not be subject to the single subject rule. If you do an initiative, you can't get the whole thing into one proposal. Without all those things in there, you can't get the balance you need to try to build a coalition broad enough to get it passed.

Where do you foresee the source of resistance coming from, as this bill moves through the legislative process?

Democrats won't like the Reapportionment Commission, and Republicans won't like the public financing of campaigns or the majority vote on the budget. So, you're readers have to mobilize and lean heavily upon their respective friends and allies and groups for endorsements and say, "you may not like this particular part, but on balance, California needs this to put itself back on track and make it functional." This state is bigger than party lines, and we occupy an enormous position in the world. Yet, we shoot ourselves in the foot by fighting each other rather than collaborating to realize the state's enormous promise.

John, bring us down to earth. What's at stake here if SCA 14 is not passed? Why should the voters follow the process?

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Well, California will become like a third world country if we do nothing. We won't be able to educate our young or give dignity to our elderly, as well as make plans in the future. It just doesn't make much sense the way it's going now. Our situation is so dire right now, the budget before us would close the doors of University of California and California State University to thousands of students. And, to those that do get into the system, it would raise their fees and lower financial aid. The budget would effectively wipe out thousands of minority students in the private colleges by Cal Grant reductions. And as the rest of the world is getting more and more educated and more and more competitive, for California to cut back on our educational system is truly stupid and self-defeating. So if we don't get our act together-all of us across lines of party and race and nationality and gender-and put the state back in working order, I don't think we have a future.

There are various proposals now being considered, either by the Legislature and by those who would use the initiative process, that seek to reform state government. One example is the open primary initiative, another is a HomeRule initiative to reform the state/local fiscal arrangement, a third seeks to constitutionally protect local government revenues from state capture. Could you put in context these proposals and compare them to SCA 14?

Each of those is single shot, and I think the public is ready for a comprehensive redo of the whole operation. I didn't put everything in it-I didn't address Prop. 13 or Prop. 98 because I felt they are too sacred and too huge and would make the proposal totally incomprehensible. I selected as much as I thought we could put in one bill and realistically achieve a balance that could attract people from both sides of the aisle. I don't think any of the other proposals will make a lot of difference. Some of them I support, some of them I don't. But I want to redo the whole system in one fell swoop.

John, let's segue to the relationship of our new Governor and the legislature. How engaged and collaborative has the Governor been since the recall. And what's your take on how policy differences vis-à-vis governance and tax policy are being addressed?

Right now it's pretty schizophrenic. The governor is bright and charming and sees himself as an action hero in moving things right now, which is intriguing. But, this is a deliberative process that has people of different ideologies and parties and backgrounds trying to find some common ground. At times he's sweet and collaborative and seems to be non-ideological or tied to any single party's view. On the other hand, he says, "if you don't do it my way I'll put a gun to your back," which is hardly a way to induce collaboration. That only induces aggravation and reaction. So, it's too early to tell where he's going to land, on the left side or on the right side. I can't yet get a read.

I've been down to meet with him for one day, for one half hour. We had a very sweet connection on some major topics like prison reform and self esteem. But it's just too soon to tell. He talks about collaborating, and he needs us-Democrats have 25 of 40 seats in our house and 48 of 80 seats in the Assembly. So he can't act without us.

As for how we move forward, first we'll all grit our teeth and pass the bonds on the March ballot. Even though they're not a great financing tool, they're the best thing we can do now in light of how deep in the hole we are, unless we choose to close the University of California next fall for incoming students. Once you get that bond in place and the spending cap/balanced budget mechanism is adopted, then we can approach the budget in a way that is truly is collaborative. We must develop an investment budget and not one that destroys the state's future.

One could argue that one positive outcome of the recall election is the media's new interest in the Capitol. Would you address the role of the media re providing a civic platform for reform conversations in the Capitol. What's being covered, what's not, and what should be?

The media's been more cynical and negative than instructive over the last several years, I've got to say. They are interested again, but I'm not sure it's more than just a celebrity interest of having a big star with lots of color in the central office. We have serious long-standing problems-this state has got enormous challenges. Whether the media wants to address these challenges in an instructive way remains to be seen. I hope so, but I'm not sure yet.

The voters in California will not only have a $15-billion bond measure to reduce the deficit, but also a $12-billion state school facilities bond, plus other matching local bonds on their ballots. Do you have a position on the school facilities bonds? How essential are they?

I support those facilities bonds, as I do the deficit bonds, because Californians keep arriving with lots of young kids and having children here. Those children need classrooms and buildings and colleges to go to school and we're desperately short and behind. We simply have got to invest in our future by building the buildings that give people adequate facilities in which they can become good learners for life. So those bonds are essential for California's future. Even should these bonds pass, they aren't yet enough for us to catch up with the need. But, these bonds will go a long way towards erecting a good chunk of our backlog of un-built schools.

Finally, please elaborate on your own Legacy Project and on your intentions after you retire from a very long and distinguished career in the state legislature?

California's got two major problems: it's structurally gridlocked and culturally it's cynical and negative and disheartening. So, we're trying to create a whole new politics about trustworthiness, collaboration and collusion-integrity. The Legacy Project started three years ago as an effort to collect all my works over the years and make it into a coherent body to be carried on by others after I leave. In the process, we've learned and grown so much to realize that politics is dreadfully cynical. Both parties are caught up in the negativity and the cynical character of it, which discourages people. The last forty years have seen a remarkable and subtle shift in the culture from negative and cynical about ourselves and our own vision of ourselves and human nature, to positive, that people are worthwhile, good natured, and that kids ought to be inspired to blossom rather than shamed into being cowardly and violent.

We're trying to formulate a whole new politics based on the insights of the 1960s' liberation movements, therapeutic movements, experiments in consciousness, injecting into the culture more intimacy, authenticity and integrity. That's where most of us are now leading our lives individually, so let's make it the public, political posture of California to be a state in which trust is at the heart of politics. Each of us needs to bring ourselves to live that way with each other and to change the character of how we do business in the capital. That is hopefully my final legacy for the state as I go off into the sunset come December 1st.

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