California’s long-standing image of itself as a civic innovator has grown starkly at odds with life in the Golden State. Some salient statistics help tell the tale:

  • California ranked forty-eighth on recent national tests of eighth graders’ reading skills and forty-fifth on math tests.1 A science assessment found California’s eighth-grade students scoring the third lowest in the nation.
  • The residents of forty other states are more likely to have some form of health insurance than are Californians. 2
  • One area where California does lead the nation is in the jailing of its citizens. The state spent more than $10 billion – almost what it spends on higher education – to incarcerate nearly 170,000 of its convicted felons. For its efforts, California has tripled its costs per inmate and has recidivism rates far higher than those in the nation as a whole.3

The crisis of civic life in California is born not just of broad problems like these but, observers say, of the state government’s seeming inability to solve them. Legislative gridlock, skyrocketing budget deficits, and a growing perception that the state’s leaders are unable to lead have created an electorate that is by turns angry, apathetic, and alienated. Since well before the current economic crisis, Californians have had a persistent sense that the state’s important governmental institutions have grown dysfunctional-unable to pass budgets or provide the public services that citizens say they want, like quality public schools.

California Forward began as a project of the Commonwealth Club of California in 2008 to help untie this daunting knot of problems. It recently became an independent public charity. With funding from the Hewlett, Irvine, and Packard foundations; the California Endowment; and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, California Forward is working to highlight the need to reform state government.

“We can’t expect substantial policy improvements in education or health care or public safety unless we change the underlying systems of governance,” Jim Mayer, California Forward’s executive director, told a gathering of civic leaders last fall. “California Forward was inspired by the recognition that broken systems of governance cannot fix themselves.”

Setting an Agenda

The organization has outlined four broad areas in which it hopes to have impact: prompting reform of the state’s budgeting process, improving the efficiency of public agencies, encouraging reform to make public officials more responsive, and working to reengage the public in civic life.

“The fact is,” Mayer says, “the system can’t continue to work the way it has. The stakes are too high. The world is much different than it was when these systems came into being. Change will happen. The question is whether we will be able to steer it or not.”

California Forward to date has embarked on extensive public outreach, meeting with diverse populations throughout the state, and on two broad projects designed to lead to reform.

The first project includes support for the implementation of Proposition 11, the Voters First Initiative, which took the decennial redrawing of California’s legislative districts out of the hands of the state’s politicians and creates a citizen panel to do the job. California Forward’s public outreach is helping to assure that required public hearings are well attended and the applicant pool for the redistricting panel is broad. “We don’t think that citizen-driven redistricting will eliminate partisan gridlock,” Mayer says. “But it will turn a bit of sunlight onto the glacier.”

Another part of California Forward’s work is to provide the public with information about an “open” primary, where voters registered as Democrats or Republicans are not restricted to voting for members of their own party.  A proposed constitutional amendment on the issue is expected to go before voters in June 2010. The reform, if passed, is expected to reduce the role of the political parties and the polarization they can cause.

State Senator Lou Correa

With a sleeping bag under his arm, state Senator Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, walks into the senate at the capitol in Sacramento, California, Tuesday, February 17, 2009. On Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, warned senate members to be prepared to stay in the chambers until they got the one vote needed to pass the state budget. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli.

The other project that California Forward has embarked upon to date is to raise awareness of how the state budget is created and the public money is spent. Mayer said this effort started with a review of previous budget reform efforts and consultations with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States, whose Government Performance Project gathers information about successful policies of state governments around the nation so they can be shared. From there, Mayer said, California Forward staff met with the public and policymakers around the state for their thoughts about problems with the budgeting process and how they might be fixed.

An Approach to Budget Reform

Their nonpartisan research and analysis has yielded several options for reform, including:

  • A multiyear budget system that would focus on long-term plans and better manage the spikes and declines in revenue that plague the state’s budget making.
  • “Results-based” budgeting, requiring agencies and departments to articulate their goals in spending money and the cost of reaching those goals.
  • A new evaluation system of all state programs based on progress toward their goals. This system would both reduce spending and preserve the most effective programs.
  • “Pay-go” budgeting, requiring all new expenditures to be accompanied by a plan for their financing.
  • A budget process that would identify nonrecurring revenue and bank it for years when economic downturns reduce tax revenues.

“It’s about creating a culture that focuses on what we want to accomplish, not on punishing state departments,” Mayer says. “All of this budget reform is designed to encourage more oversight. Right now, the legislators put together a budget and walk away from it. They may know a portion of it, but are ignorant of the entire package and the trade-offs.”

California Forward’s efforts have helped prompt the introduction of measures in the Assembly that would implement performance-based budgeting. A fact sheet on this legislation is available here.

While this and other successes are encouraging, failure to achieve its reform goals is never far from the minds of California Forward’s leaders. The organization currently is funded for three years with the possibility of a second three-year round. Mayer and his leadership council are well aware of the long history of reform movements and blue-ribbon panels whose efforts have come to little.

Nowhere to Go But Forward

But Robert McKernan – a longtime member of the California Business Roundtable who is a member of California Forward’s leadership council – saw little alternative to trying when former congressman Leon Panetta, a founder of California Forward, asked him to sign on.

“Panetta said that when he was in Congress, people with different political perspectives sat down together and solved problems,” McKernan recalls. “Here it’s gotten to the point that the outcomes aren’t what’s important. It’s the battle of wills.

“But we all want a functioning education system and the benefits that the world’s seventh-largest economy should bring,” he says. “Our perspectives may be different, but we should be able to come together and get the problems solved.”

Robert Hertzberg-the former Democratic speaker of the California Assembly who joined California Forward when Panetta left to lead the Central Intelligence Agency-agrees, noting that the current economic crisis, painful though it is, may be what it takes to finally move forward.

“In more than thirty years in politics, I’ve never seen the public this disgruntled or the level of concern this high,” he says. “It’s created a sense of urgency. Marry that to the current economic crisis, and we have the perfect storm to pursue reform.”

1 California Department of Education and U.S. Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, cited in Students First: Renewing Hope for California’s Future (Sacramento: Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, November 2007), 7 .
2 California HealthCare Foundation.
3 Ryken Grattet, Joan Petersilia, and Jeffrey Lin, Parole Violations and Revocations in California (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, October 2008).

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