State must transform disgust with government into change

Both of California’s legislative houses voted on competing versions of the long-stalemated state budget after hours of flowery debate Tuesday. The net result was zero, as everyone knew in advance that neither could muster the required votes.

The purely political drill could, and should, have been staged three months ago, but for reasons that defy logic, the Legislature’s dominant Democrats chose to do it on the final day of the 2009-10 legislative session. Democrats voted for their version, keyed to tax increases. Republicans voted for a budget that slashes spending. Their effusion of hot air evoked what William Shakespeare’s Macbeth said: “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Come to think of it, that’s true of the entire session. The Legislature’s public approval barely makes it into double digits, and the session did nothing to change that disdain while Californians suffer from the worst recession in modern history, with more than 2 million workers without jobs.

Lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have utterly failed to balance the state’s deficit-riddled state budget while skirmishing over trivia and pointing the fingers of blame at each other — which is what the buzzword-filled budget speeches were all about Tuesday.

If there’s a silver lining on this otherwise dismal record, it is — or should be — that it provides a final bit of evidence that California’s governance is utterly broken and needs a top-to-bottom overhaul.

The system that we adapted from the federal government 160 years ago and then altered dozens of times thereafter is out of sync with California’s demographic, economic and cultural reality. It simply does not work and, more importantly, cannot work.

As 2010 began, two high-profile campaigns were launched to overhaul the state’s dysfunctional governmental structure. Endemic political inertia and the fears of interest groups about change have doomed both to failure.

That failure does not, however, negate the underlying need for reform. California has become a global laughingstock, and its economic future is at serious risk unless it deals with its myriad political issues. A state that can’t balance its budget and has an abysmal credit rating, severe traffic congestion on potholed roads and a clearly failing public education system can no longer command respect. We should be ashamed.

Two new books — “Remaking California” and “California Crackup” — catalog the state’s civic ills. In a few weeks, Loyola University Law School will sponsor a forum on dysfunction and its cures, called “Rebooting California.”

It’s high time that the state’s movers and shakers — the business, labor and civic leaders who could make a difference — do something to transform disgust into change.

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

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