What Progressives Can Learn From Their California Failures

The Democratic Party has conquered the Golden State's levers of power. But political victory doesn't guarantee good governance.

cali flag full.png
In California, my home state, Democrats have dominated the capitol since roughly 1970. In the last four-plus decades, they've controlled both houses of the state legislature for all but two years. They dominate the state bureaucracy and the leadership of most major cities. And they've long dominated the vast majority of statewide offices, the governorship excepted: Since Ronald Reagan departed in 1975, it has gone back and forth between Democrats (like current and former governor Jerry Brown) and Republicans, most recently the moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Despite this, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times opinion writer, has managed to write a column that proceeds as if, insofar as partisans can be blamed, Republicans are entirely to blame for the state's woes, which he thinks are exaggerated, while Democrats bear no responsibility. As a Californian who hasn't given up on his place of residence, I'm glad to see Krugman thinks there are good times ahead for the Golden State, but the analysis that precedes his conclusion is causing me to doubt him. It's true that supermajority rules have constrained Democratic legislative majorities, that California residents have added to the dysfunction of state governance with the cumulative effect of constraining ballot initiatives they've passed, and that California Republicans are failures in too many ways to list. But I'd be guilty of false equivalence, dear reader, if I didn't assure you that Democrats bear more blame, largely because they've had the opportunity and responsibility to exercise so much more power, and weren't exactly starved of revenue compared to what other states take in.


Fine, let's set aside the question of who is more at fault. Here is a weaker claim. Democratic rule in California has included serious sins of omission and commission by the progressive-liberal coalition that has more often than not been in charge, and the left would do well to learn from those mistakes so that it can govern better, instead of pretending, like Krugman, that they don't exist, and that everything would function smoothly if only they were able to raise state taxes.

Here are five examples of misgovernance for which they bear full or partial responsibility.

Lesson 1: Gerrymandering Polarizes

The Democrats who've long run the California legislature have used their control over legislative districts as politicians are wont to do: as an incumbent-protection racket. Over time, everyone was put into safe seats, and the cooperative Republican minority was coming from such ridiculously unrepresentative districts that the whole party shifted sharply to the right: The primary was all that mattered. Thankfully, California voters handed power to a nonpartisan redistricting commission in 2010. Then in 2011, state Democrats went about gaming that system too.

Lesson 2: Public Employee Pensions Can Bankrupt a State

In City Journal, Steven Malanga provides a recent history of public employee pensions in California:

In 1991, with the nation mired in a recession and the state in a fiscal crisis, the California legislature closed the existing pension system to new workers, for whom it created a second "tier." This less expensive plan no longer required the worker to make a pension contribution, and it lowered the value of his pension to 1.25 percent of his final average salary for every year he had worked; further, he could begin to receive the pension only at 65. A 40-year veteran with a final average salary of $50,000 would thus qualify for a $25,000 pension, plus Social Security benefits.

The state's public-sector unions hated the new tier, of course, and their growing influence over CalPERS's board of directors meant that it, too, was soon lobbying against the 1991 reform. Six of the board's 13 members are chosen by government workers, and as union power grew in California, those six increasingly tended to be labor honchos. Two more members are statewide elected officials (California's treasurer and controller), and another two are appointed by the governor--so by 1999, when union-backed Gray Davis became governor and union-backed Phil Angelides became state treasurer, the CalPERS board was wearing a "union label," noted the New York Times. As the newspaper added, critics worried that the board had become so partisan that its "ability to provide for the 1.3 million public employees whose pensions it guarantees" was in doubt.

The critics were right to worry about CalPERS's bias. In 1999, the fund's board concocted an astonishing proposal that would take all the post-1991 state employees and retroactively put them in the older, more expensive pension system. The initiative went still further, lowering the retirement age for all state workers and sweetening the pension formula for police and firefighters even more. Public-safety workers could potentially retire at 50 with 90 percent of their salaries, and other government workers at 55 with 60 percent of their salaries.

CalPERS wrote the legislation for these changes and then persuaded lawmakers to pass it. In pushing for the change, though, the pension fund downplayed the risks involved. A 17-page brochure about the proposal that CalPERS handed to legislators reads like a pitch letter, not a serious fiscal analysis. The state could offer these fantastic benefits to workers at no cost, proclaimed the brochure: "No increase over current employer contributions is needed for these benefit improvements." The state's annual contribution to the pension fund--$776 million in 1998--would remain relatively unchanged in the years ahead, the brochure predicted.

But the board members knew that there was a downside. CalPERS staff had provided them with scenarios based on different ways the market might perform. In the worst case, a long 1970s-style downturn, government contributions to the fund would have to rise by billions of dollars (which is basically what wound up happening). CalPERS neglected to include that worst-case scenario in its legislative brochure. And though the board later claimed that it had offered a full analysis to anyone who asked, key players at the time deny it. Even the state senator who sponsored the law, Deborah Ortiz, says that lawmakers received little of substance from the fund's representatives. "We probed and probed and asked questions 100 times," she told the San Jose Mercury News in 2003. "The CalPERS staff assured us that even in the worst-case scenario the state's general fund would take a $300 million hit," a manageable sum in a $99 billion state budget. (The actual cost to the state budget, it turned out, was more than ten times that estimate--and it's still climbing.)

The catastrophic pension deal that Davis presided over had ramifications, direct and indirect, for cities all over the state. For a staggering look at the end result, see Michael Lewis' November 2011 article.

Lesson 3: Public Employee Unions Can Have a Pernicious Affect on Public Policy

There is perhaps no better example in America of this phenomenon than the California prison guard's union. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote in Reason:

The prison guards union regularly makes seven-figure contributions both to political candidates and to ballot initiative campaigns, nearly all of it with the goal of preventing any decline in the state's bulging prison population. CCPOA gave $1 million to the successful 2008 campaign against Proposition 5, which would have reduced sentences and parole times for nonviolent drug offenders while emphasizing drug treatment over prison. The initiative failed by nearly 20 percentage points.

To maintain California's prison-industrial complex, CCPOA must also plow money into broader defenses of the status quo. In 2008 the union gave $250,000 to fight a legislative redistricting referendum and $2 million to oppose a change to the state's political term limit laws. The union is no respecter of political party, having made large contributions to both Democratic and Republican governors and to legislative candidates from both parties... CCPOA's most direct interest is in retaining the state's iron web of sentencing laws and its stringent 'three strikes' regime.

Voters and conservatives certainly bear part of the blame for California's swollen prison population, but the party in power is always implicated in special-interest victories. What's gone on since Jerry Brown took over? "Deep in the 200-page contract that Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved for state prison guards is a provision that could generate a cash windfall to the officers when they retire," the Los Angeles Times reported. "The guards, who are among Brown's largest political benefactors, would be able to save an unlimited number of vacation days under their new deal. When they leave state service, those days could be exchanged for cash at their final pay rate, which would probably be higher than when they earned the time off. The governor is extending this benefit only to members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., a union that spent nearly $2 million to help him win election last year. Removing the decades-old limit on accrued vacation -- now 80 days for most state employees -- would be a 'huge liability' for taxpayers, said Nick Schroeder of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office... The deal also would give the members 18 more days off over the life of the two-year contract, according to Schroeder, bringing the typical prison guard's time off to more than eight weeks in the first year."

Two months vacation for new employees!

Lesson 4: It Shouldn't Be This Hard to Fire the Worst Teachers

The Los Angeles Times took a look at the tenure system that Democrats mostly support, and that Republicans mostly want to reform:

It's remarkably difficult to fire a tenured public school teacher in California, a Times investigation has found. The path can be laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings... Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don't make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

* Although districts generally press ahead with only the strongest cases, even these get knocked down more than a third of the time by the specially convened review panels, which have the discretion to restore teachers' jobs even when grounds for dismissal are proved.

* Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare. In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.

When teaching is at issue, years of effort -- and thousands of dollars -- sometimes go into rehabilitating the teacher as students suffer. Over the three years before he was fired, one struggling math teacher in Stockton was observed 13 times by school officials, failed three year-end evaluations, was offered a more desirable assignment and joined a mentoring program as most of his ninth-grade students flunked his courses. As a case winds its way through the system, legal costs can soar into the six figures.

Meanwhile, said Kendra Wallace, principal of Daniel Webster Middle School on Los Angeles' Westside, an ineffective teacher can instruct 125 to 260 students a year -- up to 1,300 in the five years she says it often takes to remove a tenured employee. "The hardest conversation to have is when a student comes in and looks at you and says, 'Can you please come teach our class?' " she said.

Lesson 5: Why Not Repeal Well-Intentioned Laws When They Prove to Be Inane Debacles?

For an example, see this New York Times story:

Since 1975, an obscure California agency called the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation has mandated that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle or cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without igniting. Because foam is highly flammable, the bureau's regulation, Technical Bulletin 117, can be met only by adding large quantities of chemical flame retardants -- usually about 5 to 10 percent of the weight of the foam -- at the point of manufacture. The state's size makes it impractical for furniture makers to keep separate inventories for different markets, so about 80 percent of the home furniture and most of the upholstered office furniture sold in the United States complies with California's regulation. "We live in a foam-filled world, and a lot of the foam is filled with these chemicals," Blum says.

The problem is that flame retardants don't seem to stay in foam. High concentrations have been found in the bodies of creatures as geographically diverse as salmon, peregrine falcons, cats, whales, polar bears and Tasmanian devils. Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.


What vexes me most about California governance is the pervasive dysfunction. Whatever one thinks about taxation in the state, disagreements about how big government should be and what it should do are proper and unavoidable. But the flame-retardant-couch law? The inability to fire the worst teachers in a timely manner? The pernicious giveaways to the California prison guards? The public-employee pensions so unsustainable that they've already bankrupted cities? The gerrymandering? The inability to provide accurate cost estimates for high-speed rail? These problems aren't rooted in different ideological visions or the minority party's intransigence.

They're just amateur hourish -- seemingly undeniable evidence of inept governance. The state needs its own Washington Monthly just to chronicle all of the dysfunction. Says Krugman, "at this point the state's G.O.P. has fallen below critical mass, losing even its power to obstruct -- and this has left Mr. Brown free to push an agenda of tax hikes and infrastructure spending that sounds remarkably like the kind of thing California used to do before the rise of the radical right." Fair enough. The Democrats are running things now. Let's see how quickly they fix the problems that I've mentioned, now that nothing matters save their own ability to govern, or lack thereof. I predict that the legislature will remain captive to teacher and prison-guard unions, that public-employee pensions will continue to eat up an unsustainable share of the state's revenue, that the increased tax revenue will largely be steered to special-interest groups, and that Democrats will prove unable to complete large infrastructure projects on time or on budget. Let's revisit in a year to see if my pessimism or Krugman's optimism proves closer to the mark.

I sincerely hope I am proved wrong.