May 4, 2004 - From the September, 2003 issue

Vasconcellos Identifies '13 Strikes' Against California

MIR is pleased to excerpt this open letter to Californians from Sen. John Vasconcellos, the legislator with the longest current tenure, in which he defines the "13 Strikes" currently facing the state and how it's governed.


John Vasconcellos

My fellow Californians,

We face an unprecedented combination of institutional and structural problems, which I will characterize as California's "13 STRIKES." Far beyond the development of the current recall movement, or the abilities of any governor, these problems demand a comprehensive approach that engages the widest array of economic, political, social and religious groups.

A failure to address California's long-term issues and the continuation of political warfare rather than political collaboration will increase our decline into democratic dysfunction.

Here are the 13 Strikes which I see threatening our state and our people.

1. Our Recession Economy, Without a State Design for Rebuilding it-Two years ago the State of California's economy had grown so rapidly that we constituted the 5th largest economy in the world. Then the bubble burst. Our unemployment rate jumped above 6%-where it remains today. Long-term growth in electronics, software, information technology, and related manufacturing sectors fell flat, as we faced new competition from abroad.

California faces the erosion of our vaunted Middle Class, as legions of moderate wage workers have trouble holding on to their jobs, with the accompanying loss of their purchasing power.

Then, to complicate matters, the State of California has no strategic plan for anticipating, much less coping with, such an economic downturn. The California Economic Strategy Panel is only now framing a new approach to our ailing economy and to our economic recovery.

2. Our Bankrupt State Budget-The collapse of the .com economy provided an immediate collapse of state revenues, in a spiral that includes the loss of stock option taxes, income tax revenue, business and sales tax revenues. On the surface it's pretty simple: when the economy is booming, more people are employed, businesses invest, buy, and grow. Throughout this growth people pay both income and sales tax; these revenues rise as people earn and buy more. Simultaneously, low unemployment lowers the draw on state funds for social and health services. As the economy sours, demands for state spending increases. Our current structural deficit stems from increased state spending and overall flatlined revenues.

Our current crisis, then, is framed by the significant prior increase in spending on state priorities, the rapid collapse of the .com economy, the resulting loss of one third of state revenues, our budgetary discretion limited by federal mandates and previous ballot initiatives like Prop 13 and Prop 98, a dysfunctional tax system, enormous expenses from an aging population in need of medical care and a growing youth population in need of education, combined with a mushrooming prison population due to "3 Strikes and You're Out" policies.

Our budget "solutions" to date have been patchwork measures designed to get us through our crisis, but not beyond it in a sustainable balanced way. We borrow through bonds, we move money from one priority to the next, and we make savage cuts in programs the public wants us to sustain-despite not wanting us to raise the tax revenues to finance these programs.

3. Our Constitutional Gridlock Imposed By 2/3 Vote Requirements on Passing Our State Budget and Tax Increases-California is one of only three states in the United States (the others are Rhode Island and Arkansas) which has a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for enacting our state budget, along with the same requirement of popular votes for imposing or increasing any tax.

This super-majority requirement in passing our state budget contradicts the norms of a representative democracy - that of majority rule. Especially with no political party almost ever amassing a 2/3 majority in either of our houses of the Legislature, this is an almost sure recipe for gridlock, allowing for tyranny of the minority against the will of the people, with the California public having little sense of whom to hold accountable for our impasse. Our super-majority vote requirement makes it almost impossible for our voting public to discern precisely who it is that is letting them down in budget matters.

Finally, Proposition 13's requirement that no new taxes be imposed absent a 2/3 vote of the people imposes the heavy hand of a particular tax rebellion on the legitimate needs of a current majority. Especially since Proposition 13 allows many businesses to avoid a reassessment of taxable value, the inequities of the property tax remain uncorrected unless 2/3 of the people see fit to amend its provisions.

4. The Corrupting Influence of Campaign Dollars and the Process of Getting Them-If accumulated wealth is a sign of Calvinist redemption, the process of accumulating political donations is the road to perdition. The dependency of contemporary campaigns on massive fundraising has utterly distorted the political process, pulling candidates away from their mass base to the special interests that can afford to support them.

It is simply impossible to protect our legislative process from the ever-increasing corrosive influence of special interest contributions. It is more and more the special interests, rather than our public interest, that is driving the course of legislation here in our State Capitol - amounting increasingly to a government - of the dollars, for the dollars, and by the dollars.

5. Campaigns That are too Prolonged, Hollow and Negative-The finest purpose of a political campaign ought be to educate all of our voters, so that each of them is equipped to make in the coming election the wisest choices regarding who is going to represent us in governing our fine state.

Today, instead, California political campaigns have largely become lengthy boring marathons of cynical negative attacks upon each other by candidates who appear to have nothing more to offer us than the message that s/he is the lesser of two evils.

It's no wonder that our citizenry is turned off to politics. No wonder that they have utterly lost confidence in those of us who survive this awful process, and get elected.

Every other year from January through November, California voters are harangued and harassed by reams of direct mail, hours of TV sound-bites posing as serious debate, and endless dinner-time phone calls from candidates and independent expenditure committees. Our exceptionally long campaign season exacerbates costs of campaigns and contributes to apathy and low voter turnout.

What good comes out of that? Our voters get bored, our candidates get both exhausted and demeaned by the ever more lengthy hours we must spend raising money to sustain such long campaigns.

6. Legislative Districts That are too Large-Our current formulation of California State legislative representation - 40 districts and seats in our California State Senate and 80 districts and seats in our California State Assembly - was set up in 1879. Shortly thereafter in the 1883 apportionment, the entire population of the State of California was 1.2 million - so that each of our 40 State Senators represented 21,500 constituents, and each of our 80 State Assemblypersons represented 10,600 constituents. Representative democracy was both an ideal and a feasible reality.

Now, in 2003, the population of the State of California has grown to 34 million human beings - with no change at all in the number of our Senate or Assembly districts. As a result, each California State Senator now is charged with representing 850,000 constituents, each California State Assemblyperson is charged with representing 425,000 constituents.

That is beyond the capacity of any human being. It is impossible. A real representative democracy is fast slipping away from us.

Each of our districts has far too many residents to allow for a legislator being much at all personal, knowing very many of her/his constituents, or engaging in the kind of meaningful political exchange and dialogue upon which democratic experiences and values can thrive.

We have a 19th century Legislature for a 21st century California!

7. Term Limits That Are Too Short-Term limits have left our Legislature - under our Constitution intended to be a co-equal branch of government - almost fatally handicapped - without the memory, relationships, or loyalty which are necessary conditions for the development and enactment of sound public policy, for carrying us through our most bitter debates, our most daunting problems and challenges.

Term Limits does more than impose a raw impersonality to the legislative process. It transfers power to lobbyists and the better organized interests, as well as long-time bureaucrats. Why? Because new legislators simply do not have time to master the intricacies and details the policies governing each element of public life on which they must vote. So they turn to those who purport to know the details-staff, lobbyists, organizational representatives. At least in the case of lobbyists, these are often the same persons legislators must turn to for fund-raising.

Term Limits are, ironically, a way to preserve the status quo, or at best for never getting changes more than cosmetic or at best gradualism - at a time and in a state which is at the frontier of a profoundly changing world. It is not possible for a legislator to develop in 6 or even 8 years the kind of stature and reputation, or gain enough respect and trust for vision, for smarts and for integrity that inspires colleagues to grow willing to follow, that enables a legislator to move colleagues to recognize new directions and take radical steps to keep ourselves and the State of California up with our changing times.

Finally, Term Limits are a recipe for screaming stupidity - rather than well-informed smart and wise leadership - at a time when we're facing the most profound challenges in our entire human history. For from the very 1st day your new legislator arrives to take office in the Capitol, s/he knows s/he has only four (or six) years to make a name for him/herself so as to be able to seek "higher office." So instead of investing her/his first years listening and learning, s/he begins immediately to scream and shout, hoping to gain the attention of the media (which seem to only pay attention to the screamers and shouters), so as to impress all the folks back home, so they'll be ripe and ready to vote for him/her to move on to some other office when term limits ends his/her stay in this one.

8. Reapportionment That is too Partisan-Under our California Constitution, the districts of our two houses of our California Legislature are redrafted (in a process known as reapportionment) after each decade's new census, so that each and all of the districts in each house of the Legislature has/have almost exactly the same number of constituents.

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Yet, under our current system, such a reapportionment plan is designed by the legislators currently holding office - who are often concerned about and committed to assuring their own continuing electoral viability.

Even that isn't all by itself all bad. But, in this most recent reapportionment plan, the leaders of our two major political parties called a self interest truce, and agreed to maintain the same electoral balance between the parties that was then existing in each house of the Legislature.

That was accomplished by loading up more Democrats into each district then held by Democrats, and more Republicans into each district then held by Republicans.

Our current partisan reapportionment plan - in so tilting each of its districts one way or the other, left us with only 17 - out of 120 - legislative districts that are politically competitive. The rest of the seats were guaranteed to one or the other of our 2 major political parties.

So, when it came time for us to come together and seek to collaborate in passing a budget this past Spring, there was little middle ground, fewer persons committed to it, and that division took us way past our constitutional deadline for passing our state budget, and almost into disaster.

9. Governors Who Show Scant Signs of Collaboration -Far too often, especially facing major crises, governors seem far more inclined to attempt to act unilaterally and impose his vision upon all the rest of us, instead of inviting us altogether into a collaborative effort which always has a much greater capacity for leading to smart pragmatic operational solutions.

10. Republicans Who Show Scant Signs of Compassion to Match Their Conservatism-Whether then it's their own character structure, or their allegiances and alliances (in fact, it's likely some fusion and balance of each and both of those) - the current batch of elected Republicans seem to be more fixed on order, structure, hierarchy, wealth and privilege. Compassion isn't readily to be found in those arenas.

Judging from their own pronouncements ("We will never vote for any revenue increases!"), together with repeated widespread reports of rampant intimidation within their own Republican caucuses by the more conservative of their members toward their members more moderate, it seems like the majority of Republicans are wedded to wealth more than anything else. They show little sign of commitment to the community of our entire human family, especially to those amongst our family who are most in need of assistance to enable them to keep pace with the rest of us.

I am pleased to acknowledge I have been experiencing more signs of compassion on the part of our Republican colleagues.

11. Democrats Who Show Scant Signs of a Willingness to Say "No" to Demands-Whether then it's their own character structure, or their allegiances and alliances, Democrats tend to be more fixed on caring, sharing, helping and providing opportunity for the less privileged, and too often lock all business leaders into the category of uncaring insensitive persons who show no sense of responsibility for the well-being of all Californians, and then go after them in ways that leave those business leaders unable and/or unwilling to proceed to make precious contributions to our state.

That doesn't always augur well for making the best public policy. And, it can lead to an ever increasing cost of government/s.

I am pleased to acknowledge I have been experiencing more signs of saying "NO" on the part of our Democratic colleagues.

12. A Citizenry Which is Systematically Misinformed by a Media That Shows Little Sign of Appreciating the Difference Between Journalism, Commerce and Entertainment-Democracy's success depends on an informed and generous people, competent to discern the differences between candidates and policies, and able to examine the long-term consequences of what they choose.

How on earth are citizens supposed to learn these things, take the long view on public matters, and judge candidates on the basis of real differences in policy and perspective? Hardly through a press and media who refuse to explore issues in depth, and treat every public policy debate as if the only stakes were the electoral outcomes.

Yet, way too often, our cynical media engage themselves primarily in titillation rather than in education, treat what's going on here in our Capitol akin to Reality TV, looking and seeing and saying only what amounts to spectacle - instead of recognizing and portraying what's truly at stake. That is, if they cover Sacramento at all.

Our media most often focus far too much on the "horse race" they see going on here in the Capitol - which party is winning and which party is losing - and far too little on the critical policy questions under debate and the ramifications of various policy options.

This isn't real journalism; it's a form of entertainment aimed at selling advertising space to merchants and corporations. It doesn't educate, it doesn't inform, and it doesn't deepen the debates.

13. Throughout, A Profound and Pervasive Lack of Trust in the Political Process, the Economic Elites and out Fellow Californians-When we have all of these first 12 strikes operating and converging, we find ourselves locked in the paralyzing throes of a deadly circular conspiracy of cynicism - which readily leads us to an utter lack of trust, in our politics and in our politicians, and in our government itself.

If politics is combat by other means, by ever more shrill politicians speaking sound bites crafted by consultants, through a media disinterested in details, nuance, or context, in term-limited offices designed to make policy-makers stupid-then the people are right to not trust.

The problem is that the affect folds back into the institutions, draining the political world of informed constituents who demand real accountability over real policy, and hold us to the long-term consequences of our choices.

The lack of trust is then both symptom and cause, the ultimate warning and the cry for a more decent politics in which people can believe.

Conclusion: From Crisis to Action

I have tried to provide my own summary of the critical aspects of what I consider a democratic crisis. This is a crisis for democracy, and a crisis in democracy. No sudden burst of legislative leadership will solve all these elements of the storm, but we will have to start somewhere.

It is time each and all of us Californians -

1 - Stopped playing the Blame Game;

2 - Recognize we are all in this crisis together; and,

3 - Own up to and take seriously our own individual and collective responsibility to come together, and enact a massive constructive comprehensive reform that gives us hope of restoring democracy to the State of California, to and for all Californians -

- So that we once again enjoy a government -

- Of the People, by the People and for the People of our beloved State of California!

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.