Hewlett Foundation Grantee Explores Reforms to State Government

2011 marks a hundred years since a passionate crusader named Hiram Johnson became governor of California and pushed through a series of reforms designed to improve efficiency and restore public confidence in a state government that the citizenry viewed as inept and unresponsive.

Sound familiar?

Now on the centennial anniversary of Johnson’s reforms, a bipartisan organization of civic leaders from across California is set to begin a statewide outreach to its citizens in hopes of rekindling that spirit of renewal. Interestingly enough, some of the changes that Johnson pushed through in 1911—the initiative process, for one—are among the tools of government now being considered for reform.

These civic leaders are partnering with a nonprofit organization known as California Forward, which began in 2008 as a project of the Commonwealth Club of California, and other civic groups to attempt to untangle gridlock in the state’s institutions. In 2009, California Forward became an independent public charity with support from multiple sources, including general operating support from the Hewlett Foundation, as well as funding from The James Irvine Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The California Endowment, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

“There’s a true opportunity to redefine democracy,” says Jim Mayer, California Forward’s executive director. “And not in the sense that Madison and Jefferson got it wrong. I mean that the social interactions and economies in this state are so different and the place is so big that we have a fundamental opportunity to sit back and say, What is the relationship between the people and their government, and what should it be?”

The leadership of California Forward—which includes business executives, former state legislators from both sides of the aisle, and a former justice of California’s Supreme Court, among others—plans to take that question to citizens across the state in a series of meetings large and small. They plan to hold as many as a dozen meetings a month for much of 2011.

Listening to the Concerns of Californians

California Forward’s staff is currently working with local and regional leaders statewide to gather a broad cross-section of Californians, listen to their concerns, and discuss a series of governmental reforms the organization has proposed based on its nonpartisan analysis, says Victor Abalos, its communications director.

In addition to giving presentations about possible reforms, staff members have launched a video project called “Speak Up for California” in which they ask residents around the state about their visions for California and then post the responses online.

“We ask people three questions: What is your dream or vision for California? What’s the biggest obstacle to that dream or vision? And what should the role of government be in making it a reality?” Abalos says. “We edit their answers and put them up on our website and on our YouTube channel. They’ve become very popular.”

Certainly there’s no shortage of problems for Californians to dream of fixing: a $25 billion deficit, low student test scores, poorly planned budgets, and an initiative process dominated by special interests, to name several.

For its part, after extensive study of the practices of other states and consultation with a range of policy experts, California Forward has proposed five areas of reform for the public to consider: redistricting, term limits, the budget process, the initiative process, and the relationship between state and local government.

In fact, California voters already have made piecemeal progress on some of the reforms.

In 2008, voters approved a measure that took the once-in-a-decade chore of redrawing state legislative districts out of the hands of California’s politicians and gave it to a citizens’ commission. And earlier this year, voters approved an initiative that allows open primaries, through which the two highest vote-getters regardless of party move on to the general election. Both changes, which California Forward endorsed, are expected to lead to the election of more moderate state candidates who must appeal to a broader range of voters.

Making State Budgeting Easier

With regard to state budget reform, voters in November 2010 approved an initiative that allows the passage of a state budget with a simple majority vote instead of a two-thirds supermajority. The change, endorsed by California Forward based on its nonpartisan analysis, will make it more likely that the state legislature will be able to approve a state budget on time instead of months late, as has been the case in recent years. But, Mayer notes, that reform does nothing to assure that the budgeted money is well used.

To achieve that, the organization has proposed four additional budget reforms:

  •  A two-year budget, which will allow more long-term planning and smooth the ups and downs of revenue, and a rainy-day fund.
  • “Pay-go,” a budget provision blocking the enactment of any legislation that costs money unless it identifies a source for that revenue.
  • Performance-based budgeting, which requires state agencies to have clear performance goals and ties the budget process to their success.
  • Greater oversight by legislators after a budget is passed.

The State Senate introduced several of these reforms last spring, but the Assembly did not act on them.

One member of California Forward’s Leadership Council, Fred Keeley, the Democratic former speaker pro tempore of the State Assembly, is dubious that the legislature will ever enact significant reform. “I just don’t think you can expect the legislature to be capable of healing itself,” says Keeley, who favors the public using the initiative process to continue to press reforms. “It’s not a realistic expectation.”

Embracing a Diversity of Views

But he acknowledges that California Forward’s nonpartisan Leadership Council has a broad range of views on how to support reform, from more initiatives, to the legislative process, to encouraging the public to push for both approaches at once.

Another Council member, Bruce McPherson, a Republican who has served as California’s secretary of state as well as in both houses of its legislature, already has attended twenty meetings with citizens throughout the state to discuss reforms. Both he and Keeley say that, despite the difficulty of the tasks, they are finding the public receptive to change.

“When you sit with community groups around the state as we all have, I really think they get it,” McPherson says. “California’s governance problems really have to be solved in a comprehensive manner, and it’s very difficult to do. … But I’m always an optimist. And things have already begun to change.”

There are several reasons to believe that the moment may have arrived for additional reforms. One is changes in the electorate itself. According to surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California, the number of voters who no longer identify themselves as Democrat or Republican is growing. These “decline-to-state” or independent voters, up from about 5 percent of the electorate in the 1990s to 22 percent today, constitute a political force potentially willing to act without regard for whether a reform is good or bad for the two major parties.

Another sign is the election of a new governor, Jerry Brown, who during his campaign embraced two reforms that California Forward also endorses: “pay-go” budgeting and a shift of governmental decisionmaking from Sacramento to county and local government.

Finally, there is the unexpected appearance of a globe-trotting billionaire, Nicolas Berggruen, who has committed at least $20 million in support of reforming California government. To that end, Berggruen has formed what he calls the Think Long Committee for California, a bipartisan group that includes former U.S. secretaries of state George Shultz and Condoleezza Rice; former governor Gray Davis; former state assembly speaker Willie Brown; chairman and CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt; and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, among others. The Committee is a part of the nonprofit Nicolas Berggruen Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to exploring new ideas of good governance.

California Forward’s executive director Mayer says the two groups are working together on many issues.

“There is a hunger to have this conversation,” Mayer says of reform. “We get dozens of invitations to speak.”

Adds Keeley, “We are the modern-day Hiram Johnsons. We’re going to work with folks today the same way he did then.”



Foundation Newsletter January 2011