Villaraigosa Speech Got the Big Stuff Right

Press reports of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's speech in Sacramento on Tuesday have focused on its pieces, especially his challenge to Gov. Jerry Brown to court political danger and take on politically untouchable issues such as the commercial property tax protections of Prop 13.

Such a focus on the small, political stuff is natural. And when an ambitious politician such as Villaraigosa is the messenger, skepticism -- indeed, cynicism -- about political motives and tactics is appropriate.

Whatever Villaraigosa's reasons for giving this speech (full disclosure: a colleague and I had a long conversation with the mayor recently about ideas in my 2010 book, California Crackup), and whatever the weaknesses of specific ideas in it, the overall message of the speech was right on:

California has to stop trying to patching leaks in its broken governing, budget and tax systems -- and start redesigning those systems so that the state can do what it needs to prosper in the future.

That would seem like an uncontroversial stand to take, but Villaraigosa's point is a radical notion in Sacramento, where incrementalism rules the day. Here's the heart of the mayor's argument:

"We will fail if we think small. Some recent reform efforts have stalled for precisely this reason. We can't "rope off" the real issues or go on ignoring the elephants in the room. We have to have the courage -- and the confidence ‐‐ to ask the really big question: what do we need to do to make California first again?

"Politically, the answer will take courage. Plenty of it. Because there is no formula for fixing our schools and adequately funding our colleges and universities that doesn't include education reform, significant new revenue and a fundamental reordering of our dysfunctional budget and tax laws."

The mayor's speech was particularly effective in focusing on the costs of the constant budget-patching, particularly the constant cuts to the state's university systems.

"We have to confront the truth that our economic linchpins -- our systems of primary, secondary and higher education ‐‐ are in peril," he said.

"Instead of meeting our generational challenge, we are in the process of defunding and dismantling the greatest public university system in the world," Villaraigosa said.

This is the opening for a big conversation, a conversation that the state needs. But the manner in which Villaraigosa built his argument was risky.

That risk is all about Prop 13. The mayor took on Prop 13 directly, arguing for protecting the property tax provisions of Prop 13 for homeowners, but eliminating them for commercial property owners. The mayor wisely linked Prop 13 changes to a broader redesign of the tax system.

But by picking on 13 so directly, the mayor takes on an extremely popular piece of California's broken system. And he risks getting into a fight over 13 that drowns out all the other points he made about the need for broader reform. On the other hand, Villaraigosa, by picking a fight 13, may find it easier to start a conversation on bigger reform.

What will be the impact? We'll see. Here's hoping that Villaraigosa's speech is followed by similar big thinking from other Californians, from across the state and across the political spectrum.

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