State Government, The Daddy Who Can’t Let Go

Buena Vista Pictures

Imagine a father who has been paying his daughter's bills, but also deciding the details of how his daughter lives her life.

Then one day, the father declares: "It's time for you to take responsibility and make decisions about your own life." But before he lets her go, he signs a contract guaranteeing her an allowance for years to come.

Would you say that the father was returning power and responsibility to the daughter? Well, you would if you were involved in governing the state of California.

If you pay attention to California politics, you've been hearing a lot about Gov. Brown's efforts to return power and authority to local government.

One of the first ways he's doing this is in corrections, by shifting certain offenders from state prisons to the control of local counties. That sort of realignment makes sense.

People commit crimes in a community; local officials should thus decide -- and bear the costs and responsibility -- of deciding how to punish and incarcerate them.

But the state government  isn't giving counties this full responsibility. Like that father, the state is going to continue to pay the bills.

In fact, Brown indicated this week that he would go to the voters with a constitutional guarantee -- like that father's contract -- that the state would keep paying the bills for what counties do with their local offenders.

This is called "realignment." But it's upside-down realignment.

Counties should have to make not only decisions about their offenders -- but also have to set the tax rates, come up with the revenues, and pay the freight for those decisions.

But that's not really possible in California's governing system.

Local elected officials have little power to set tax rates -- that's left to the legislature (albeit by 2/3 vote) and to voters at the local level (also at a 2/3 vote). Real realignment -- and real return of power -- would have to upend the whole system, and give elected officials the power -- and the responsibility and accountability -- to come up with the revenues to pay for the programs, services, and, yes, incarceration they want.

The fact that such a change is not even on the table exposes just how hollow the current push for realignment is.

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