As Prop Zero Says Goodbye, Five Tips for The Road

Three years ago, an editor at NBC's web site approached me with an idea for a blog on California's governance crisis. He thought there was room for a site that took the state's problems seriously -- but that went beyond the usual woe-is-me stories and offered solutions for California's budget, political and school systems.

In the early spring of 2010, those discussions prompted NBC to establish Prop Zero (an earlier name that involved an earthquake metaphor was jettisoned). It was an experiment. I agreed to be lead blogger, with the goal of expanding on themes of my about-to-be published book, California Crackup. I did not have high expectations -- I thought we'd be lucky if Prop Zero made it through the primary elections in June 2010.

To my surprise, Prop Zero survived through that election -- and through the election of Jerry Brown as governor, through 2011, and through two more elections this year. Over the past three years, we've offered thousands of posts from leading authorities on California within the NBC universe (your lead blogger has contributed 1,512 posts, the NBC computers tell me). Terrific editors at NBC stations in LA, San Diego and the Bay Area shaped the site and in many cases saved your lead blogger from himself.

It has been a wonderful run. But after this election, I was exhausted, and had come to feel like the blog had run its course. NBC, which had supported Prop Zero strongly despite its relatively small audience, saw things the same way.

The state is in a different place than it was three years ago -- still facing profound challenges and governance problems, but with different leaders, a different political context, and different burning issues. After a rash of ballot measures and reform efforts, we may be entering a lull in efforts to fix California -- and those efforts were a focus of this blog. And on a personal level, I'm eager to focus more time and energy on my rapidly expanding duties at Zócalo Public Square.

So with this post, Prop Zero says goodbye. And thank you. And in so doing, we offer, from three years of daily published work here, five tips for the road that Californians must walk.

5. California governance is way too complicated. Some things, like the budget deficit, seem to have improved in California. But the system is too complicated for even well-informed Californians to undertand. Prop Zero did its best to try to explain that complexity, and sometimes we succeeded. But Californians are a busy bunch, and they can't self-govern unless the state gets a system that follows common sense principles.

4. Avoid scapegoating. Prop Zero took all sorts of people to task here -- governors, state lawmakers, unions, corporations, local governments, the media -- but no one person or group is responsible for what's gone on in California. Again and again, we've seen that citizens themselves, often through their votes for ballot measures, have created many of the hardest-to-solve problems in California governance. Understanding this state's dysfunction starts with looking in the mirror.

3. Think big. Most proposed solutions for California reforms are narrow and small -- the top two primary, redistricting reform, temporary tax increases, pensions. But as we've shown here, none of these small changes add up to the very much. The state needs bigger, bolder fixes -- in part because the state has never properly designed a system of government. California government is a product of patches and fixes and little manuevers. It doesn't really hang together. What's required is a moment of design -- through a constitutional convention or some similar process.

2. California, for all its problems, still defines the future. The state government may be a mess, but the state is an amazing place of greath strengths. Half of all venture capital in the country is invested here. We're globally oriented, and doing well compared to other states in areas such as tourism and trade. Our politics, for all their problems, are among the most open in the country, and we have an increasingly diverse electorate that embraces an inclusive brand of discourse and politics.

1. We can fix this. Californians are fully capable of giving themselves a better governing system. The state never had Founding Fathers who designed a proper constitution. Indeed, our 19th century constitutional conventions were civic disasters -- disasters run entirely by men. Today's diverse population can put the state on a sounder footing -- if we understand what the problems are, and can design fixes that are big enough to meet our challenges.

That's it. Thank you again. And see you down the road.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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