Political and tax reform won’t happen under incrementalists 

California’s political dysfunction has evolved from a theory first advanced by a few jaundiced observers a generation ago — including yours truly — to a widely embraced axiom that has spawned endless journalistic, academic and civic discourse.

While there’s broad agreement on symptoms of California’s malaise, such as chronic budget deficits, there’s wide disagreement on its causes and what might be done to correct it.

Reformers divide roughly into two camps: Those who believe that tweaking political processes incrementally can make government work again, and those who contend there’s a more fundamental disconnect that can be cured only by creating a new structure attuned to 21st-century reality.

The latter approach, which would require a constitutional convention, hasn’t gotten very far because of its inherent complexity and riskiness.

Meanwhile, incrementalists enjoy strong support from wealthy foundations and individuals who are naturally skeptical of blowing up governmental boxes and starting from scratch.

The foundations backed an effort called California Forward, a consortium of civic and political figures that backed incremental reforms such as an independent redistricting commission and a “top-two” primary election system, both of which were endorsed by voters.

Many of those involved with California Forward then segued into the Think Long Committee for California, bankrolled by billionaire Nicholas Berggruen’s personal foundation, which this week unveiled its incremental prescription for California.

The 23-page proposal’s two most important points would be a major tax overhaul — extending sales taxes to services and flattening the personal income tax — that would raise about $10 billion more a year, and the creation of a “Citizens Council for Government Accountability” that would be a new layer of government to oversee the other layers.

Berggruen is prepared, it’s said, to spend $20 million to sell the plan to voters. And that’s where reform gets messy.

While the scheme has some commendable aspects, it falls short of the top-to-bottom overhaul that California probably needs.

Its tax provisions also complicate plans by unions and Gov. Jerry Brown to put their own tax increase on the ballot next year.

The Think Long tax plan resembles one from a blue-ribbon commission a couple of years ago that would appear to shift tax burdens from the wealthy to middle-income taxpayers.

If voters face two major tax measures — and a third is also being bandied about — the most likely result would be confusion that bodes  ill for all.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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