Does Local Government Provide Path to Statewide Reform?

Let's look at the new Brown administration optimistically. If the governor-elect is going to find a way to reform of California's badly broken system of elections and government, how might he get there?

George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times has a column this week that suggests a path: reforming local government as a way to help fix the state. In his campaign, Brown talked about the need for local government reform, while offering very few specifics about how he might do it.

The top Democrat in the state senate, Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, is trying to come up with some of those specifics. And he seems to be thinking in the right way -- comprehensively, with consideration to how changes in local government might change state budget and tax policy. Steinberg's approach would reverse the post-Prop 13 centralization of taxing decisions by making it easier for local governments to raise taxes -- and making them more responsbile for spending decisions. That change would open the door to other changes at the state level.

Skelton reports:

Currently, raising the local sales tax for a specific purpose — such as hiring more cops —requires a two-thirds majority vote of the people. Steinberg would lower that to a simple majority. At the same time, he would modernize the entire state tax structure, including lowering the sales tax rate but extending it to services.

But neither Steinberg nor Brown would touch the residential property tax, considered a political third rail.

His goal, Steinberg says, is to maintain services, but allow local entities to operate and finance them more efficiently while "shrinking the size of state government. Because state government simply does not have the revenue stability to meet all its obligations."

He and his staff, Steinberg says, are going to sit down this week "with butcher paper and try to work up what would really be a fundamental restructuring of government."

Sounds good. But I can't help but strike one pessimistic note. Brown has not yet indicated whether he'll go along with this approach. And Republicans are going to be hostile to anything that changes Prop 13. But Steinberg may be right to start reform by trying to empower locals--that's an approach that should be popular with the public and that makes sense as policy.

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