California Forward, Let’s Make a Deal

Robert Hertzberg 050211

Sacramento is abuzz with conversation about whether the "action fund" political arm of California Forward, the foundation-backed good government group, will go forward with a ballot initiative that makes a number of changes to the budget process and to local government.

Opponents of the complicated initiative, especially on the left, see it as restraining spending and giving new powers to local communities that could make it easier to work around state laws (which, by your blogger's lights, is one of the most important and intriguing parts of the initiative).

They want California Forward not to turn in the signatures it has gathered to qualify the measure.

Instead, they are working on a compromise that could be passed by the legislature. That compromise, since it would likely alter the constitution, would have to go to voters.

California Forward is a big-tent organization, with lots of interests and ideologies represented among its backers (one notable contributor is billionaire Nicolas Berggruen who gave $1.2 million to the initiative drive and former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg is a co-chair). 

Which means that a retreat, and a compromise, are likely.

That's not a bad thing.

Critics of the measure are overstating what the initiative would do -- most of the changes are technocratic and none alter the basic governing and budget systems of the state (which badly need a redo).

But the measure is so complicated, and the changes so numerous, that it's very hard for anyone to know exactly what would change as a result of such an initiative.

That uncertainty breeds fear. And the California Forward should take this moment to maximize its leverage. If it's going to drop the measure (after spending millions to qualify it), it needs to get something more than a watered-down alternative to its not-exactly-game-changing initiative. It should demand something big.

If I were negotiating for Cal Forward, I'd demand nothing less than a constitutional revision commission.

That suggestion will seem wild and laughable to some, but it's actually a quite reasonable request. The state needs big integrated changes, a position that California Forward has slowly been moving in the direction of (after spending years pursuing narrow one-off changes).

If California is ever going to get out of its mess, it needs a redesign. And a commission is one way -- probably the most politically feasible way -- to do it.

Such a commission would have representatives from a wide variety of interests -- to assuage those arguing.

But it would have to have the power to put on the ballot directly its entire package of reforms. No legislature or governor would be able to block it. And it would have to have power to change or eliminate anything in the constitution; its jurisdiction shouldn't be limited to particular subjects or articles of  the constitution.

And if the groups opposing the initiative won't make the deal, California Forward Action Fund should go ahead, turn in its signatures, and fight.

I suspect that by going forward, Cal Forward would be calling the bluff of opponents. Are the critics on the left -- who already have to fight for more taxes and against restrictiosn on union dues on the November ballot -- going to have the money and energy to launch a big campaign against the initiative?

Doubtful. Which is why now is the moment for those who want to fix California's deep problem to make their demands bigger.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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