For a Better State, Give Local Government What It Needs

As KCET begins to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, we're engaging the public in a series of conversations, starting with "How do you envision a better state?" Contributor DJ Waldie shares his ideas below. Share yours here.


All the boom times that inflated our desires and our demands have ended. The California good life that millions took for granted for so long belongs mostly to digital billionaires. And the billionaires want to set up their own insular state -- the ultimate in Californian narcissism.

For the rest of us, the hope is for enough of the California Dream to make fit lives for ourselves and our children.

Better government for California is tangled in that incoherent expectation. I call it incoherent because the several historical strands that have made up California politics since the 1970s have never resolved what government is supposed to be. And yet, California's voters are asked every election season to pass on constitutional initiatives that redefine how government will realize the California Dream.

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Given the big money behind the initiative process and a bewildered electorate, government by plebiscite inevitably tends toward concentrating more and power in fewer and fewer hands.

Without much thought, we've given ourselves a term-limited state legislature that is more easily cowed by its leadership, more partisan, less knowledgeable, and fully cocooned by political operatives inside and outside of government. Voters want good representatives, but they're always ready to choose candidates they know only from sound bites and 30-second TV ads.

The results have been perverse for cities. Since the late 1980s, for example, the state Legislature has shifted billions of dollars from cities to backfill yawning holes in state, school district, and county budgets. Voter-approved tax limitations, state revenue giveaways to favored industries, and legislative deadlock are making the disparities between what cities must do and what they can afford even worse.

In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a packet of bills that would have given cities some relief from the state's revenue shakedown as city redevelopment agencies were forcibly dismantled. The bills were intended to give cities flexibility in ending economic development projects while continuing support for the construction of affordable housing. The governor justified his vetoes with the driest of humor. He said that cities might "focus their efforts on using (the) new tools ... instead of winding down redevelopment. This would prevent the state from achieving the General Fund savings assumed in this year's budget."

The greatest good that cities can do for Californians, from the state's perspective, is to turn out their General Fund and empty it into the open pit that has been the state budget.

Yet it's cities that Californians say they value when polled. And Californians believe their city council members represent their interests better than any other level of government. So why are the state Legislature and Governor Brown continuing to undermine the ability of cities to pay for the services that residents need? And why are the Legislature and the governor concentrating authority in Sacramento at the expense of local control?

It's all about the money. "Budgeting by ballot box" has proven to be inefficient and full of unintended consequences. Voters have been beguiled by initiative backers to divert state revenues to the backers' preferred pork barrel. And the state is overly dependent on volatile income tax receipts and sales taxes, making state finances chaotic and hard to predict.

At the local level, a proliferation of business fees, "bed taxes," utility user fees, and punitive fines and citations have taken the place of the relative stability of property tax receipts. Placentia and Stanton in Orange County are even considering a city-imposed sales tax. Parcel taxes -- a flat cost no matter the size or value of the property -- are making property taxation less and less fair.

The state drives cities to scramble for revenue at the margins, and the bond between residents and their local representatives wears thin.

Do you want a better California, where more streets are fixed, more affordable housing is available, more parks and playground are open, more cops are on the street, and more satisfaction with everyday life is likely? Then start by restoring to cities the fiscal resources to realize these aspirations.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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