02/07/2011 by James E. Canales

Viewpoints: Californians can seize rare chance to reform government

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee

To some, the stage might appear to be set for the same disenchanting story. A new governor has arrived in Sacramento, only to find the state facing another enormous budget shortfall – $25 billion over the next 18 months. As always, the governor's proposed budget is provoking disagreements. Sides are chosen, lines are drawn, positions harden, and billions in potential spending cuts and taxes are once again the talk of the town.

But this time, for those of us who firmly believe we can find a way to make our government work more effectively, there is a much rarer commodity that is cropping up in the Capitol: hope.

It's difficult to speak of hope when it comes to fixing our state government without sounding naive. Yet, we see before us a confluence of forces that is creating one of those unique – perhaps once-in-a-generation – opportunities to rise above the political fray and shape the future of our state.

California faced a similar situation one century ago. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Progressive-era reforms of Hiram Johnson, when voters frustrated with a dysfunctional government dominated by that era's special interests, the railroad barons, built much of the democracy we rely upon today. Everywhere we look, we see reflections of a time when Californians found the courage to flex their political muscle and support a series of reforms that reshaped government and put more power in the hands of the people.

As powerful as the Progressive era reforms were, they are now a century old and every day the urgency for 21st century reforms becomes greater. California's voters certainly seem ready for reform. Everyday voters, from parents frustrated by their kids' underperforming schools to business owners worried about the state's chronic fiscal problems, are expressing their discontent with the status quo and demanding change.

The last election showed just how much this appetite for change has grown in the difficult economy, with a range of new ballot measures changing everything from budget votes to the way political districts are drawn. And Gov. Jerry Brown was elected while pledging to make structural changes to our government that will make it less "complex, confusing and inefficient." His new budget puts systemic reform at the top of the agenda, and a group of vocal supporters in the Legislature appear ready to follow his lead.

Outside Sacramento, organized and well-funded efforts are adding momentum to the voters' rumblings for reform. Much is expected of an exciting new group of reform-minded leaders funded by Nicolas Berggruen called the Think Long Committee for California. Berggruen's $20 million pledge to push the best structural reform ideas, from tax policy to the initiative process, toward the ballot is already helping change the tone in Sacramento.

Another exciting development is the grass-roots effort by the California Alliance, a coalition of more than 20 regionally based organizations that work on a range of social justice issues, that have come together to work on governance and fiscal reforms because they believe such reforms are necessary to effect substantive change. In the months leading up to the election, the alliance made the case personally to more than 175,000 voters that making our government work better is the only way California can achieve its dreams.

Five of California's largest foundations have joined forces and sought to add to that momentum by reaffirming our commitment to reform. The California Endowment, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the Hewlett, Irvine and Packard foundations have recently granted a total of $15.5 million over the next four years to California Forward, a broad-based, nonpartisan group founded by our organizations in 2008 that has made a name for itself as one of the few genuinely nonpartisan efforts devoted to developing common-sense solutions to California's range of governance challenges.

California Forward is now organizing a statewide conversation called "Speak Up California," inviting civic leaders, business groups, nonprofit advocates and elected officials from all over the state to share their ideas for reform and talk about how this growing constituency for change can make them a reality.

We firmly believe that this is the conversation Californians need to be having. And as we see the powerful combination of influential leaders and everyday citizens stepping up to join this reform movement – from the governor to the Think Long Committee's impressive list of advisers to California Alliance's member groups – we are more hopeful than ever that this is the year we can find a way to make our government work better in service to the people of California.

We invite you to join us and play a role in solving our state's governance challenge. The conversation has begun. The momentum exists. The time is now. Hiram Johnson and his reformers proved it a century ago: We can do it again.

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James E. Canales is president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, a private grant-making foundation.

Categories: Selected Blog Posts, Civic Engagement, Governance Reform, Speak Up CA, State Budget

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