Jerry, Finally, Signals Big Move on Reform

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From nearly its inception during the gubernatorial primary season last spring, Prop Zero has questioned and criticized Jerry Brown for not offering details of his plans -- and specifically for avoiding the hard question of how to fix California's broken system.

On Tuesday, that began to change -- making Brown's first full day in office the brightest day that California government has seen in a long time.

Brown, after a meeting with leaders of the association that represents counties,  told reporters that he intends to pursue a "complex" and extensive realignment of responsibilities and revenues between state and local government. It would include, he said pointedly (and crucially), an unwinding of the centralization of revenue power that has been a feature of California life ever since two signal events of the 1970s: the passage of Prop 13 -- which stripped local governments of some taxing power in the name of conservative anti-tax rhetoric -- and the courts' Serrano decisions -- which stripped school districts of control of their own tax money in the name of liberal rich-and-poor schools-must-be-equal rhetoric.

What does this mean? Brown didn't offer exact details. But he clearly indicated he wanted to give local governments more power not only to make spending decisions on programs but also more power to determine their own revenue.

In providing locals more revenue power, Brown is walking right up to taking on Prop 13--and the system it helped spawn. The question is whether he'll cross that line--and seek to reverse the part of Prop 13 that established the high standard of a two-thirds vote of the people in a particular local area before a tax could be approved. Or whether he'll devise a new formula or rule to overlay the complex, centralied system that has grown up around Prop 13.

Brown didn't say which way he was going, but there is one reason to worry. He described his solution as "complex." If he's being honest about his solution's complexity, that's a problem. The system we have now is very complex, the most complex governing system in the country, in fact -- as you may understand if you've read this far in this post. What California needs a system that is much simpler, so that the public can understand it and hold local and state government officials accountable.

And here's what would make it simpler: a realignment that made sure that all the responsibilities involved with a particular program -- decisions on the taxes and fees that fund it, the spending on that program, and the evaluation of its effectiveness -- are made by the same level of government.

In practice, here's what that means. Right now, for example, in criminal justice, decisions are made on multiple levels of government. Police are often municipal employees. Prosecutors are county employees. And the prisons to which convicted criminals are sent are state. So, for example, county prosecutors have incentive to send more people to expensive state prisons than to cheaper county jails because state taxpayers, not the local taxpayers that elect district attorneys, are paying the freight. In a realignment, municipalities and counties should have to pay the costs of imprisoning the people they arrest and prosecute -- while also having the power to raise taxes and fees they see fit so they can pay those costs.

This makes sense for all kinds of reasons. One of those reasons is California's scale. This is a country of 38 million, with regions and people too diverse to be well governed from afar in Sacramento. In a simpler, realigned system, some counties and cities and school districts would choose to tax themselves less and provide less in services. Other local communities would go the other direction.

Which is why, despite all the early noise from the right that Brown may be taking on Prop 13, the real objections to this may come from two other parts of the political spectrum.

First, Liberals, who care deeply about equality, will complain about the inequalities that will flow from such a change. Poorer places with fewer resources to tax might have less effective public services.

Second, and perhaps most significant, expect to see some cities, counties and school districts resist being given responsibility. Local governments in California complain about budget cuts -- but many of the politicians in them, secretly and not so secretly, like the fact that local governments are just spending entities. They never really have to worry about -- and work hard to build the case for -- raising taxes. When programs are cut, they can simply raise Sacramento. A simpler system would make life more difficult for local politicians -- even as it makes for better governance and more sensible budgeting for all Californians.

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