Dan Walters

Opinion: Power moves back and forth from capital as California reconfigures government

Inmates wait in the Roger Bauman intake facility for assessment before integrating into the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. More than 50 years old, the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center doesn’t look ready for a new era of corrections. Some of the buildings are decrepit. Some of the jail cells have bars, instead of secured doors, a relic of construction at older prisons such as Alcatraz. Photo taken March 01, 2012 in Elk Grove, California.
Inmates wait in the Roger Bauman intake facility for assessment before integrating into the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. More than 50 years old, the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center doesn’t look ready for a new era of corrections. Some of the buildings are decrepit. Some of the jail cells have bars, instead of secured doors, a relic of construction at older prisons such as Alcatraz. Photo taken March 01, 2012 in Elk Grove, California. rbyer@sacbee.com

Since becoming governor for the second time, Jerry Brown has preached the virtues of what he calls “subsidiarity” – reversing the concentration of governmental finances in Sacramento that began when he was governor the first time.

When voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, clamping tight limits on local government and school property taxes, the state assumed much of the burden, especially for schools.

Over the ensuing decades, the fiscal shift continued. A major milestone was the state’s assumption of financing local trial courts, which had hitherto been county burdens.

In addition to operational financing, the state also issued bonds for construction of schools, jails, courthouses and other previously locally financed facilities.

Brown has undertaken two major, albeit partial, reversals of that trend.

One is another “realignment” that shifts responsibility for incarcerating and supervising low-level felons to counties, as well as operation of some health and welfare programs, with a dedicated share of sales taxes to pay for them.

The second is an overhaul of school finance that provides more money to local districts, albeit with an emphasis on poor and/or “English learner” students, but leaves its precise use to local officials. And Brown also wants them to re-assume the financing of school construction.

As the governor was giving local officials more flexibility in managing services and money, however, Brown was going the other way, in a sense, regarding the constitutionally autonomous University of California.

Brown wants to make state appropriations to the huge university system contingent on its adopting measures to make itself more cost-effective – an attitude that doesn’t sit well UC President Janet Napolitano and many regents.

The amount of money involved is relatively tiny; it’s really a confrontation over how independent UC can remain, and it’s quite similar to another independence issue, one involving the court system.

There’s been a fierce internal battle, pitting the court system’s central administration against some rebel trial judges who say they’ve been shortchanged.

Brown has been giving the courts some modest increases in state financing, just as he has the UC system, but the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, contends that the state shouldn’t give the judges more money without some controls to ensure it’s being spent efficiently.

The rebels seek legislative support for their pleas for a bigger share of court money, but the Judicial Council, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, has relied on the system’s constitutional independence to avoid tighter management from Sacramento. The issue remains unresolved.

A reconfiguration of California’s huge governmental structure is underway, and the outcome is very uncertain.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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