Peter Schrag

Viewpoints: Is that the sound of ice breaking in the Capitol?

Published: Friday, Apr. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 17A
Last Modified: Friday, Apr. 19, 2013 - 12:15 am

There must be a law of political science linking the size of an organization to the centrifugal forces that tend to drive it apart.

Something like it seemed to be at work at the Democrats' state convention last weekend, where the defenders of the educational status quo, including, the California Teachers Association, were sniping at reformers like former Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero, and vice versa.

At the same event, even as the Democrats were celebrating their election victories of 2012 and the two-thirds legislative supermajorities they brought, those victories didn't seem to create much confidence that there would be enough votes to tinker with Proposition 13 or raise revenue by any other means.

There was excited talk about putting commercial real estate on a different – and more rational – property tax basis than residential property. Delegates even passed a resolution to that effect. But don't make any bets that they can get it done.

Meanwhile there's been talk again about using the Democrats' supermajority to enact an oil severance tax, as virtually all other oil-producing states have. In the deep pockets of Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge fund billionaire, environmentalist and philanthropist, the cause might even have an angel.

But here again there are problems, not just with getting enough votes in the Legislature, but with Gov. Jerry Brown, who promised not to approve any tax increase without the blessing of the voters. And as the wise people in Sacramento were reminding us, next year is an election year, both for legislators and for our protean governor. Brown once proclaimed himself a "born-again tax cutter" and has never been sure that he's really a Democrat.

Meanwhile, across the aisle came the shocking announcement from Bob Huff, the Senate Republican leader, supporting a resolution (since passed in watered-down form) urging the president and Congress "to take action that develops a path to legal status and recognizes that immigrants are a vital part of a variety of our nation's industries including emerging technologies, medicine, agriculture, construction and hospitality."

Moreover, as Huff's handout put it, "the resolution also supports a reasonable and timely path to citizenship for immigrants already living and working in the United States."

There were the usual qualifications: "comprehensive background checks, a demonstrated proficiency in English, payment of all current and back taxes, and creating an immigration policy that can respond to emerging domestic labor needs."

But coming some 20 years since Gov. Pete Wilson, warning Californians about how "they keep coming," led his party down the road of massive resistance to immigration, this was an indication that elections matter and that maybe the GOP's self-marginalization was ending.

Nothing may come from any of this. The importance of the supermajorities the Democrats won last year was always overrated. Especially since power to redistrict was taken from the Legislature and given to a nonpartisan commission, there are enough swing districts to force some of those supermajority Democrats to keep looking over their shoulders. Voting for anything that might raise somebody's taxes in California is always risky. If it touches on Proposition 13, the risk is all the greater.

Yet let's not blame all this on the pols: We have what we have because we can't agree on alternatives. And these are all tough issues.

There are two big education debates in Sacramento these days:

• How to slice the salami called school funding, now growing, but still pitifully inadequate. A little more for schools with lots of poor kids and lots of English learners, as the governor proposes, leaving a little less for the affluent suburbs? Or a more even distribution, meaning a little more for the affluent?

• How to evaluate, reward and discipline teachers. By seniority and graduate credits earned, or by effectiveness; and if the latter, how should effectiveness be measured? Student test scores, peer reviews, principal's judgment, parents?

And all such questions rest on shaky ground: They assume that if we could only get schools right then our students would be up there with the Finns, the Taiwanese and the Koreans on the big international tests.

And of course schools could be better, but given the differences in cultures – the relative stress on intellectual achievement, for example, or the respect and social status accorded teachers – the differences in schools may be as much the consequence as the cause of our problems.

And as lots of people have observed again and again, we want so much more from our public services than we're willing to pay for, and have locked our system down with so many checks on government and those we've chosen to run it, that it's a miracle it functions at all.

Still, it's encouraging that both parties seem to be coming a little closer to reality. It may take another decade to get real immigration reform, and maybe longer before there's any real order in our tax and school funding policies. But we seem to be talking about those things, and that, at least, is progress.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Bee.

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