Rebuilding California: From the ground up

Over the weekend I spent two days in Sacramento at the Local Government Summit hosted by the Cities Counties Schools (CCS) Partnership, a consortium of advocacy organizations representing about 8,000 local elected officials from school boards, city councils and county boards of supervisors all over the state.

The idea behind the summit was to gather the clout of all of those elected officials together and try to develop some broad principles for change in California.  There were presentations on various reform efforts, including those being put forward by the Bay Area Council (which is pushing for a constitutional convention) and California Forward (which is proposing a set of discrete legislative proposals/ballot initiatives that would reform the state budget and the way state government works);  an interesting presentation on the mood of the electorate; and breakout sessions for participants to discuss and indicate support or opposition to various proposals and initiatives.

The meeting was energizing, since it is amazing to realize how much power local officials could have in harnessing the discontent that is being voiced by all Californians. Indeed, polls all over the state are showing that voters trust their locally elected officials but are losing more confidence in the legislature and the Governor by the day.  Still, for that power to be realized, all of us local officials would have to speak with one voice, which the meeting also showed could be a tall order.

For example, while participants overwhelmingly supported the idea of “protecting local revenues,” a huge sticking point arises over which revenue sources are local and moreover, what “local” means, since cities, counties and school districts are each discrete entities with sometimes overlapping jurisdictions (luckily we don’t have that issue here in San Francisco, since the city/county/school district boundaries are the same).  In the breakout conversation I attended, city council members from rural and suburban areas sparred over how to divide sales taxes and property taxes, which doesn’t bode well for all of us finding a way to agree.

Anyway, there was broad agreement on the fact that state government is broken, and that the relationship between local entities and the state needs to be overhauled. School district, city and county representatives all voiced the sense that the state has lost its ability to prioritize, and would rather meddle in local affairs rather than pay attention to tougher statewide issues like the budget.

In the straw poll at the end of the two-day meeting, participants voiced the most support for:

  • Protecting local revenues;
  • Reforming term limits;
  • Reducing the 2/3 requirement to pass a tax/bond issue;
  • Requiring legislators to find new funding sources for initiatives that impose new responsibilities on local governments.

In the end, I came away feeling that something good has started, but it remains to be seen where the effort will go and whether it will really enact the change all of us are yearning for. To learn more, download the statement of joint principles and possible reform options created by the CCS Partnership.

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