November 3, 2009 - From the October, 2009 issue

Sen. Steinberg Offers Reform Agenda To Bring State Back to Prosperity

In the following speech, given at the Pat Brown Institute and excerpted here by TPR/MIR, California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg acknowledges California Government's dysfunctionality, but he also speaks with a surprising confidence and clarity on the reforms and leadership necessary to bring the state back to prosperity. Citing SB 375, landmark legislation tying transportation funding to regional land use policy in order to prove that progress is still possible in California, Senator Steinberg lays out an agenda for the future-mirroring much of what is being advanced by California Forward-that delegates more fiscal authority to localities and reforms California's budgeting and term limit laws.


Darrell Steinberg

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg: This is a great honor to be asked to speak at this esteemed institute and to speak at a lecture named after the great Pat Brown. If only we could-and we will-replicate some of what Pat Brown was able to do in terms of leading California and thinking about a vision for the future, we will do just fine...

...This is a big task to come speak tonight about California. Boy oh boy, we are in the midst of interesting times. I want to begin this way-I love political clichés: "A chicken in every pot." "When you are running a campaign always run as if you're running from behind." "Somebody once said that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I have two of my own favorite clichés that may not be as well known but that speak, in my view, to California and the great challenges we face in the 21st century. One, "There are two kinds of people in politics: the short-timers and the long-termers." Two, "The process isn't the problem. The problem is the problem." I think a lot about these ideas as I reflect upon my own first year as President Pro Tem of the State Senate. Some would say that I drew the short straw in this past election because one could not have entered a leadership role during a more difficult time.

Over the past nine months my colleagues and I have resolved a $62 billion budget deficit. It is unheard of and unprecedented, including $40 billion of the most painful cuts imaginable. In addition, and maybe in part as a result of the severe recession and the fact that so many people are suffering, our government in California suffers from a huge crisis of confidence. That is reflected in every public opinion poll.

There is no question that we have a political and financial system in California that falls way short of meeting the needs of the people in the state. There is a growing belief that this democracy itself-not just in California but throughout the country-is incapable of achieving major change. Let's hope to God that the president and Congress succeed in health care reform. Yet, it represents a great test of the ability of democracy to not just stop bad things from happening but to make something important and great happen. Know that we are living through an era of politics in which the coarseness of the dialogue itself makes it difficult to seek and achieve compromise. You can not deny that there is truth in every one of those critiques. So, as an elected officials-but more importantly as Californians-we need to begin embracing change. We embrace efforts like California Forward. We embrace the opportunity to fix our outdated tax system. We must embrace the necessity of moving to a two-year session that includes one year on the budget with more genuine oversight and fewer bills. We embrace change or irrational forces will come forward, and they will make the system even worse than it already is.

A lot of time and attention is rightfully focused on the big picture systemic changes that are essential to California's long-term future. Yet, in preparing for this address tonight, I obviously thought a lot of Pat Brown. What would the average Californian with some knowledge of the state's history and government say about the Pat Brown era? Was it an era of great reform? I'm not sure that people would say it was an era of great reform. I think people would say-and what people in fact do say-is that his was an era of producing real results for California. The California Water Project, the Master Plan for Higher Education, and the state highway system are tangible achievements that created jobs, sustained the tax base, and gave people the confidence that government, with all of its systemic and human imperfections, was all-in-all a force for good. None of those advances were accomplished or implemented in a year, in two, or even in three years. But Pat Brown set a vision and began to work. While acknowledging that the system is broken, I believe that what sometimes gets lost in the system today is the art of legislating. Under any system of democratic government there will always be checks and balances. In my view, the system is purposely designed by our founding fathers to slow change. Let me cite the Federalist Papers. We all have read them, and we all know the system was designed to avoid the unchecked power of a king or queen. Under any system of democratic government we will always have outside "special interests" influence the process.

The system needs change and reform. Many of these obstacles that exist within the California system specifically need to be addressed. But let's not think that at least some part of the cure is to do a better job with the system that we have. There are obstacles. Some of them are intended and some of them are not. Ok, then what? As I speak here tonight, we have an unprecedented opportunity, not just over the next several years, but over the next several months, to make a 30-year advance to help solve California's water challenge. Over the next several months we have the opportunity to make California the national leader in renewable energy. Over the next several months we have the opportunity to take a dramatic turn and change the course of high-poverty schools in our state. In addition, we can begin to chip away at the broad-based fiscal and governmental reforms that California Forward and the Constitutional Convention advocates are rightfully pushing. Why do I maintain a strong faith that all is not lost? In part that is because time and time again, I have actually seen the system work.

I want to cite the example that was mentioned in the introduction. It was the example that is most recent for me and it was my opportunity to participate and witness the possibility of transformational politics. I am talking about the passing of Senate Bill 375. The substance and policy of the measure are worth an article or a speech in and of itself. Finally in California we make a connection between land use, transportation policy and funding, housing, and improving the environment. But it is the political message that is interesting to me. SB 375 is a lesson in old-fashioned policy building and did not happen over night. For me, the genesis goes back at least a decade, actually several decades, before I even entered public life. In 2001, being a naïve newcomer to the Legislature, I introduced AB 680 which put forward the audacious notion that cities and counties should share the growth in their sales tax receipts to limit what is known as the fiscalization of land use-building auto malls and big box stores and making land use decisions based not on what is best for the community and best for the environment but what is going to maximize the sales tax dollars to fund police, fire, and parks. You would have thought I had declared socialism as the leading economic theory in the state of California. Builders and local governments hated the bill. Housing and environmental advocates, strangely, were tepid in their support. The idea was not a new one, because for a decade or more various special commissions on reforming state and local government financing recommended this very change, or something similar. I got my hat handed to me. We got the bill fairly far, but in the end there was too much resistance, too much change overnight, and too much fear that the bill would result in some cities and counties winning, and some losing.

Fast forward a couple of years. In 2006, the Legislature passed AB 32. Now all of a sudden the issue of climate change and the relationship of land use to transportation policy to achieving the AB 32 goals came front and center. In SB 375, decades of combat among powerful combatants peaked at least on the one major approach to growth and environmental policy in California. The environmental community got a clear policy tying transportation funding to a more compact urban footprint. We also got a more efficient and expedited process to build housing in ways that are consistent with the sustainable plan. Cities got an eight-year planning horizon instead of a five-year planning horizon, which means fewer lawsuits and greater certainty in how to build communities. Housing advocates got more certainty and ability to build affordable housing.

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We can and must build the same kinds of coalitions in the other major challenges facing California: water is right in front of us, renewable energy, health care, and education. We can no longer afford to have a system where stakeholders always have the ability to say no, defeat the progress, but don't have the ability or willingness to find a way to get the end.

Let me get back for a moment to the big picture. I have been lucky. I say that in my six years in the Assembly it took me five full years to really learn the job. The first five years I did alright, but it was instinct and hard work. But to understand the relationship between the two houses, the relationship to the Legislature and Administration, and how it all worked, took me a full five years. Then I was termed out a year later. I got lucky in the way that the timing worked. I was able to sit out for two years, get elected to the Senate, and then come back.

Don't take my comment that the lost art of legislating is enough to change California, because the system does need radical change. You can't be a long-termer under the current system that we have today. The old adage has been printed a number of times. If you're having a potentially life-saving surgery and the expert physician with years of experience says, "I'm sorry. I can't operate. I'm termed out. But here is a new surgeon. I'm sure that it will all work out. That intern will work hard and do his or her best. That intern will be motivated. But I am sorry" Experience, especially when it comes to the art of legislating and the art of governing, matters. It isn't just term limits. Our system of public finance, the two-thirds problem, the initiative process, the legislative schedule, all must be changed because for every SB 375 story, there are too many things that don't get done. There are too many things that don't get done right. This isn't about California's government. This is about the people of California.

Let me conclude with what I consider to be the most significant issue facing our state and ask whether we are able or willing to overcome our political differences to solve this problem. We have too many children leaving school without the requisite skills to compete in a high-wage economy. We have a 50 to 80 percent dropout rate in too many of our schools. In my view, we have an outdated education system that is too often not relevant to what the skills and needs are going to be for young people to become adults in the work world.

There is an opportunity with the Race to the Top, which is the Obama Administration's program to take the most challenged schools and see if we can do something different. Let's look at the antiquated rules. Let's look at, yes, increasing funding, but let's look at the successful models and find ways to bring those kinds of reforms. Let us have a more real connection between our employers, our business community, our public agencies, and our public schools system so that education is not just a philanthropic add-on or a volunteer mentor program. We look at our tax system; we look at our public investment; and we say to the community that if they are willing to partner with public educators and are willing to create career pathways, whether they require college or not, and guarantee jobs to young people-if they keep up with their part of the bargain then we will reward you with bond funds, tax credits and every incentive we can fund. To me, our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity is to take all of these issues we care about, whether it is the environment, health care, education, or economic development and business climate, and integrate them in a way that can change California.

I end with two more clichés. "The longest race began with a first stride," and "Never give up." We are not giving up on California. We know what our approval ratings are. We read it, and we are sensitive to it. I think we know what our shortcomings and our faults are. But know that my colleagues and I are long-termers. We can turn this thing around and we intend to do so.

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