Death Spasms



Once upon a time, California was the envy of the nation. We had the best education system, the best jobs, the smartest and most innovative people, the best weather, the best scene. In the years between 1940 and 1990, the state netted 12 million new residents through migration -- about 40 percent of the total population, at the time. These were the days when a sizeable percentage of the world's population harbored some desire to move to the U.S., and a sizeable percentage of the U.S. harbored some desire to move to California.

Those days are long, long gone. Today, there are far fewer people looking to get in on our action, and far more looking to get the hell out. Our unemployment rate now stands at a stunning 11.5 percent, about three points higher than the national average. We have the second-worst high school dropout rate in the nation, according to research from the California Faculty Association. And as bad as the federal government budget situation is, it has nothing on Sacramento's, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state legislature are looking at a $42 billion deficit -- about a third of the state's annual spending.

The six measures up for vote in the May 19 special election were put there as part of the 2008-09 budget deal, which was finally signed in February, about eight months late. They each attempt to address the budget deficit in one fashion or another. All but one are astoundingly unpopular with voters -- a Field Poll release last week showed each of the first five measures trailing by at least nine points three weeks before election day. The only exception was Proposition 1F, a symbolic feel-good measure that would cap the salaries of state legislators in down budget years. It led 71-24 percent, nicely mirroring the legislature's 12 percent approval rating.

If the measures do go down in flames, as expected, then it will probably be time to get more serious about revamping the fundamentals of California government. But which way will it go? Will the state's rump Republican party carry the day, with its insistence on dramatically slashing services? Will there be a renewed effort to repeal or revamp Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 initiative that straightjacketed the government's ability to raise property taxes? Will the call to rebuild state government from the ground up via a constitutional convention grow louder? If so, what could the state's myriad interest groups possibly agree upon?

We'll find out sooner or later. Even if they succeed, the measures on the May 19 ballot merely postpone the pain -- unless, of course, if the economy does a complete 180 in the next year or two. A big if. In all likelihood, whether by choice or by force, sooner or later, the ungovernable state is going to have to settle on a new flavor of upside-down governance.

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