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.

Dan WaltersOp EdsOpinionSan Francisco

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

SF police issue first citation for violating stay at home order to abortion protester

Ronald Konopaski, 86, cited outside Planned Parenthood for allegedly failing to shelter in place

Pier 39 aquarium staff furloughed — but what about the fish?

Aquarium of the Bay raising funds from public to keep up operations during shutdown

Help the San Francisco Examiner, SF Weekly continue our mission of providing free, local news

This week, I was faced with the heartbreaking task of reducing the hours — and therefore the pay — of the very journalists who report, write, edit and photograph that news.

San Francisco police begin issuing citations for failing to shelter in place

Officers to cite businesses, people who fail to heed warnings

Ride-hail drivers left idling by coronavirus shutdown looking for a lift

Bay Area ride-hail drivers are among those who have been hit hardest… Continue reading

Most Read