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California's Looking Like the Progressive Alternative

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Remember when California was universally derided as a mess, incapable of governing itself and ready to fall into an economic abyss that would take down the rest of the country?  The Economist, among other respectable newspapers, specialized in such jabber.

Now, the counter-story is starting to emerge.  Peter Schrag, the sage of California journalists, has written a long form article in the American Prospect, which begins: "Seen from Washington or New York, California looks like a brilliant fiscal success, even without comparing it with the Republican moronarchy in Washington, the budget disasters of Sam Brownback's tax-cutting Kansas or Bobby Jindal's Louisiana, or the scandalous budgetary finagling that earned Chris Christie's New Jersey the second lowest credit rating in the nation."

Schrag tells the story of California's electoral deal with Gov. Jerry Brown: a willingness to trust an old, second-time-around governor and to tax themselves to restore the state's forward motion.

The State Responded to Stimulus

The state has responded, gaining a larger percentage of jobs lost in the 2008-2009 recession than the nation as a whole, breathing life back into its public schools, and restoring the idea that the legislature could pass balanced budgets on time.

The predicted exit of businesses and moneyed people hasn't happened, even though we are constantly reminded that the state's business climate is bad: all those pesky environmental regulations and the failure of the state to wholeheartedly endorse fracking.  After all, who could be against fracking in an earthquake zone?

But Schrag's commentary looks to the very long road ahead if California wants to extend its moderately progressive view of statehood into the future.  Its schools and public colleges are still dreadfully underfunded, and in a state where education comprises half the state's budget, rethinking both education from Pre-K to graduate school needs to be on the table, as well as the means to pay for it.

Schrag points an accusatory finger at Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax limitation measure that effectively eliminated local control for the financing of schools and other purposes.  Beyond education—ranked 29th in absolute levels of support, and 42nd when ranked by cost of living—the Proposition 13 casualties include huge unfunded liabilities for public employee pensions, a decaying infrastructure, and huge inequalities among taxpayers. 

Although polls show Proposition 13 to be wildly popular, there is a growing push toward revising its application to commercial property.  The Make It Fair campaign would allow reassessment of commercial property at market value.

Prop 13 on Collision Course with School Finance

Schrag doesn't say so, but Proposition 13 is also on a political collision course with the politics of California's new school financing and accountability system.  The full implications of the Local Control Financing Formula won't be known for years.  But the underlying idea, consistent with Gov. Jerry Brown's values of subsidiarity, is to move decision making downward, reversing the drift of education policy decisions to Sacramento.

If LCFF is successful—and it still has a long way to go—it will energize local communities as advocates for education, but it will do so without the ability to raise the funds to match their advocacy.  The grassroots anger that was used successfully by the "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more" anti-tax populists 1970s is now being felt by parents and communities who want to improve their schools but have few means of raising funds.

The logic of Proposition 13 tells parents and community supporters of education that they shouldn't have the power to support their local schools.  The Local Control Finance Formula runs in the opposite direction.

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