West Coast Wasteland
Voters recognize the state's dysfunction and the concomitant need for reform. But recent Field Poll data show the electorate to be deeply resistant to the sorts of reforms that would help get the state back on its feet. There's not only no will to modify the residential property tax constraints imposed by Prop 13; the majority also opposes a "split roll" property tax that would allow for commercial properties to be taxed at a higher rate. There's no support for reining in the initiative process or modifying term limits. A clear majority also oppose ending the two-thirds vote requirement needed to raise taxes or pass state budgets. And a majority believes--implausibly, according to almost all fiscal experts who have studied the issue--that the state could plug a $25 billion deficit simply by eliminating government waste and fraud.
Seeing which way the winds are blowing here, ex-governor Jerry Brown, who wants to cap his career by getting elected as governor once more--and who, at least for now, is seen as the front-runner among Democratic hopefuls--has come out in opposition to reforming Prop 13 and in support of a "simpler" (read: "flatter") tax system. On the Republican side, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and other high-profile would-be candidates have come out against any tax increases and any constitutional reforms that would eliminate the two-thirds requirement.
It's a Catch-22: voters know the system is breeding paralysis and needs to be reformed, but as long as the dysfunction continues to send legislators' reputations swirling down the toilet, those same voters are unwilling to cede more power to the legislature or limit their ability to make policy on the hoof via the initiative process. This, in turn, leads gubernatorial candidates to circumscribe their reform ambitions in order to curry favor with a disillusioned electorate. And so the circle of dysfunction-suspicion-dysfunction remains unbroken. "You have to restore voters' trust in government to make good decisions," argues Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project. "They see declining public services and say, 'Why would I give these people more authority?' But until they do, we're going to see cuts in everything from public schools to the DMV."
September 24, the first day of classes at many of the UC campuses, was a cloudless, blazing hot day in the college town of Davis. It was also a day when many classes weren't going to be held. Across the UC system, faculty and students were walking out to protest the cascading series of budget cuts and fee hikes triggered by the state's reducing its commitment to the public universities by many hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Educate! Agitate! Organize!" were emblazoned on many protesters' T-shirts. "Respect the unions, bargain now," read the UPTE CWA 9119 local's banners.
Since Mario Savio set the bar for impromptu student speeches at Berkeley in December 1964, university protests in California have had that certain frisson, that sense that maybe, just maybe, someone else will come along who can speak as eloquently and passionately as he did. It never happens, but that doesn't stop them from trying. A young man who identified himself as a TA in the physics departments told the crowd that students and faculty alike had to stand up and resist. There was, he concluded, power in this teachable moment.
The crowd agreed. Shortly afterward, thousands of them set off on a long march around campus, to the administration building and then to the chancellor's residence. "Whose university? Our university!" they called and responded. "Whose university? Our university!"
Of course, that's only true if the general public agrees--including the 87.5 percent of the state's high school graduates who don't qualify for a University of California education. It's only true if a new consensus can be forged that channels enough tax dollars to the state to keep these vaunted public institutions afloat. And unfortunately, that consensus isn't emerging.
A few weeks after the rolling series of campus protests began, the UC Regents voted to increase student fees by a stunning 32 percent over the next academic year. While they attempted to soften the impact by increasing the number of students who would qualify for financial aid, the public relations impact was disastrous. Across the ten-campus system, students began occupying administrative buildings. Many faculty members, outraged at being asked to take furlough days that cut their salaries by up to 10 percent and at increased teaching loads caused by many lecturers' and TAs' positions being eliminated, joined in the walkouts. At UCLA and Berkeley, huge protests captured the attention of the national media. Meanwhile, UC president Mark Yudof pleaded with legislators to restore more than two-thirds of the $1 billion in lost funding to avoid an implosion of the country's pre-eminent public university system.