No. 51 in the Federalist Papers – the intellectual basis for American government – sets forth the principle of “checks and balances.”
Written by James Madison (using a pseudonym), No. 51 reflects the attitude of the nation’s founders that having won its independence from an autocratic monarchy, the United States should disperse authority to preclude a despotic ruler.
When California became a state in 1850 it, like other states, adopted the federalist system, embracing No. 51’s theory that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
California, the land of wretched excess, has taken the principle to extremes – creating a jumble of competing, often overlapping and utterly confusing governmental entities that cloud accountability.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Examples abound. One, noted in this space recently, is the state Coastal Commission interjecting itself in water quality issues miles from the coastal zone – essentially intruding on the state water quality board.
The commission also took it on itself to force a surfing competition to include women – laudable in the abstract but way beyond the reasonable scope of its authority, making one wonder whether it will now be the gender equity czar of every coastal activity, or the animal rights czar since it also forced SeaWorld to end orca breeding.
Another: It’s almost impossible to figure out which state agency is truly commanding California’s crusade against carbon emissions. The Air Resources Board is taking the lead, but the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission and the Department of Transportation also claim pieces of the action, creating a confusing array of impacts on consumers.
The Board of Equalization consists of four directly elected members and the state controller and its politicians often squabble over petty issues. Originally created in the 19th century to oversee property tax assessments, its portfolio expanded to other taxes, such as sales and gas taxes.
Meanwhile, the three-member Franchise Tax Board collects personal and corporate income taxes. However, any appeals of FTB cases go to the Board of Equalization, two of whose members also sit on the FTB. And several other state agencies also collect taxes.
California should eliminate these overlaps by having a Department of Revenue answerable to the governor and a state tax court for appeals.
The Department of Insurance, headed by an elected commissioner, has been fighting a behind-the-scenes battle for years with the governor’s Department of Managed Care over who regulates the multi-billion-dollar health insurance industry.
And why do we have elected county superintendents of schools, plus elected county boards of education?
While the county education departments operate some specialized schools, they serve mostly to oversee – more or less – local school districts, which have their own elected boards and appointed superintendents.
However, there’s also an elected state schools superintendent, who manages the state Department of Education but is subject to decrees of the State Board of Education, appointed by the governor.
So who’s accountable for the success or failure of public education? Who knows?
It’s a question that could be applied to much of state government. When the nation’s founders gave us checks and balances, they probably didn’t expect a consequence to be unaccountability.