Joe Mathews believes California should have a constitutional convention to redesign its system of government -- from scratch (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Joe Mathews believes California should have a constitutional convention to redesign its system of government -- from scratch (Photo by Tessie Borden)

California’s Governance Mess, in the Eyes of Joe Mathews

Former Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews, now Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation, addresses California’s unique governance system in the book he wrote with colleague Mark Paul, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.

Joe Mathews, one of the authors of the book “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It” (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Mathews comes to the Autry on Saturday to talk about the book as part of the Go West Reading Series, a partnership of the Autry, PEN Center USA, and UC Press.

And if you think governance in California is a weighty topic that few of us have time for, Mathews is in total agreement.

“From the Gold Rush, we were people who were in a great hurry,” Mathews said last week as we met to chat at a Starbucks in L.A.‘s Los Feliz area. “We didn’t come here to try to get government right. We came here to pursue our dreams, get rich, all those things. And we’ve never spent a lot of time on government.”

In fact, he believes that’s a huge part of why Californians have ended up with such a complicated government, unique in the world in its setup. And, he says, that’s not a good thing.

“We just have a really sticky and inflexible system,” Mathews said. “That means that the decisions of the past govern us. And it’s not like anyone ever designed it or decided that way, because it wasn’t … one big decision. It was a series of things and the interaction between the formulas and decisions.”

In the book, Mathews describes how California developed its unique way of governing by ballot initiative, and how it, along with the election system, have resulted in an incredibly complex system in which the minority rules, the power of the executive and the legislature shrinks ever more, and gridlock reigns. He takes as an example the recent budge battle in Sacramento.

Mathews’ book about the state of California governance (Photo courtesy PEN USA)

For example, even though the legislature approved an on-​time budget this year of $86 billion, Mathews said it was not possible to add any significant revenue to close a $9.6 billion shortfall, because according to one iron-​clad formula, any bills involving revenue increases must be approved by a two-​thirds vote of the legislature.

Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly complained about the new spending plan once it passed.

“This budget fails to include any of the reforms that Republicans have been seeking since January,” said Sen. Mimi Walters, R-​Lake Forest, in a Huffington Post report. “The budget before us is more of the same, kicking the can down the road.”

Democrats had their own problems with it.

“We have made decisions that we hate because there’s less money and we have to do the best we can with what we have,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-​Sacramento. “The minority party has sat on its hands, has sat on its pledges and has refused to participate in governance.”

Mathews said it wasn’t the legislators who decided what this year’s, or any year’s, budget would look like. It was our byzantine system of rules.

“People aren’t making decisions, now, about budgets,” Mathews said. “Our previous decisions are the ones making the decisions. All the formulas, all the constitutional amendments, all the whips and chains on the budget process that have been put in place over the whole history of the state, they make the decisions.”

Mathews says each one of those initiatives introduces another layer of complexity to state government, with consequences that are impossible to predict.

“Most places don’t work like that,” he said. “California is unique in making tax and spending decisions, the core decisions of any democracy, and setting them in stone and making future generations live by that.”

Joe Mathews believes California should have a constitutional convention to redesign its system of government — from scratch (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Mathews says no one in the legislature has enough power to really set the system aright. And that is by accidental design.

“Every time we have a budget, it’s bad,” Mathews said. “They assume things that are legally questionable, or assume more money (than is really there). And then they cut. And the things they cut are things that have a direct effect on people.”

He said the services that usually go under the knife during the legislative budget process are services such as public university education, that, in the context of the state’s entire budget, are relatively cheap. The reason they keep getting cut, Mathews said, is because they are easier to raid than other parts of the budget that have been left off the table by voter mandates or constitutional amendments or other requirements, like federal matching funds that the state relies on and would lose if a specific state funding level were to drop.

“They don’t have any kind of voter-​approved or constitutional protections,” Mathews said.

No other state in the nation straps so many formulas and ad hoc protections to individual line items in the budget, Mathews said, and as a result, other legislatures have much more flexibility when tough times result in less revenue and budget shortfalls. And ours is the only state, the only place in the world, where, if the people vote an initiative into place, it can’t be changed except by another popularly approved initiative.

“When we adopted the initiative referendum a hundred years ago this year, we adopted it in a way that was different from everyone else,” he said. “All the other places gave the legislative body some sort of role in fixing or mending initiatives. There was no such role in California, in part because people saw themselves at war with the legislature.”

So how to fix it? Mathews believes more ad hoc solutions are not the answer. Instead, Californians should come together and have a constitutional convention to design a new state government, and they should consider using other states or even other nations as examples.

“We’ve never had an authentic moment, which other states have had, with countries, other democracies have had, which the United States had in 1789, of constitutional design, where people got together who represented us and tried to figure out a system where the pieces sort of worked together,” Mathews said. “We never did that. We were always in too much of a hurry.”

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.