Peter Schrag

Viewpoints: There's a lot to fix with Legislature's new power

Published: Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 - 10:08 pm

Among the leaders of the new Democratic supermajority in Sacramento these days, the buzzword is "overreaching," as in "not." And there's a lot to overreach about.

Some of us would like to roll the clock back a half century, to the re-election of Gov. Pat Brown, when the loser told reporters they wouldn't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore. Talk about irony.

That was, it seemed, the best of times, when we were all gung-ho for Big Stuff: new freeways, water projects, university campuses, parks, schools, the good life in California. It was in 1962 or early 1963 that California became the biggest state in the union. I was one of the writers who came from New York to see the California miracle.

There's a lot to roll back, and we've started on some of it. We've eased legislative term limits; we've modified the "three-strikes" prison sentencing law so you can't get life for stealing a few golf clubs; and while we haven't yet managed to get rid of the supermajority requirements to raise taxes, we've actually elected a supermajority that could do it. The Legislature can now also pass a budget with a simple majority.

But maybe the most encouraging thing at the moment is the possibility that Jim Brulte, at one time his party's leader in the state Senate, could become the new chairman of the California Republican Party.

Brulte is as conservative as they come, but he's smart, personable and pragmatic and knows his party has to build bridges to the tight little island where it's isolated itself. When he was the GOP leader in the Senate in the early years of this century, he used to say that despite his conservatism, he was in the left wing of his party.

But, Toto, we're not in 1963 anymore. We're not the homogenous state of young white middle-class families we were – or thought we were – then. We are older, browner, more crowded in a nation that no longer dominates the world as it did then, in which the cost of health care has gone though the roof and in which many more of us will make ever more claims on it for much longer than we did then.

Still, there are opportunities.

We might tinker with Proposition 13 to give local voters some chance to raise their own taxes. We might get serious about a split roll that would tax commercial property, maybe not mom-and-pop stores, but big holdings, on a different basis from residential property. What Chevron doesn't pay for its refinery has been killing the schools in Richmond. We might even impose an oil severance tax, as nearly all other states do.

We might – should – change CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, to make it less an instrument for NIMBYism and the lawyers who manipulate it. We'd better attend to not only our long-term public pension liabilities but to the billions in unfunded retiree health obligations that hardly anyone has yet talked about.

We had better address the gaping inequities in our education system, from the lack of decent preschools to the scandalously low completion rates of the students in our community colleges and public universities.

So far we've just been tinkering at the margins. Gov. Jerry Brown's weighted school funding formula that would provide a little more money for poor students and English learners is a start, but unless that money goes directly to schools and not to districts, and unless it's closely monitored, it will be spread around by the same political forces that always dominate school policy. Next month we may learn how Brown proposes to allocate it.

Nor do we yet know how Brown proposes to replace the millions that were lost to the state's adult education programs when he eliminated the categorical funding for it. Adult-ed is a lifeline for many thousands, immigrants and others, struggling to take the first steps toward a decent American life. They, too, belong on the agenda.

The list runs on – water and flood control projects, prison reform, health care. Each of us has a few items. There's a lot there, on the left and the right, to bargain over.

For the Democrats in the Legislature, the underlying split is between those who believe it's better to be cautious, that this supermajority is a shaky proposition held together by members from marginal districts who could well be tossed out two years from now, and those who say it's better to aim high while there's a chance.

And then, of course, there's Jerry Brown, the man in the hair shirt. He may well be torn between his desire to leave some sort of legacy comparable to his father's and his deep streak of austerity. There have been times in the past when, contrary to his ebullient father, he's sounded more like an ascetic monk preaching limits and self-restraint to his fellow citizens than a man who wanted to do great things. The un-Pat Brown.

He could no longer be that man. In a few weeks, we may find out.

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