CA Forward Offers Slate Of Phony Fixes

FEB. 14, 2011


One of my daughters is an esthetician, and as she studied for her state certification so she could be sanctioned by Sacramento as worthy to give facials and wax eyebrows, she had to learn two completely separate and conflicting approaches to her chosen work.  First, she learned how to give facials and wax eyebrows. Then she learned how to pass the California’s esthetician certification exam, which is based on practices no one uses anymore and maybe never did.

I thought of her experience on Friday afternoon as I found myself in a conference room with several other business people, trying as hard as we could to share our point of view about how to fix what ails California with two representatives of California Forward, the outfit that brought us open primaries and new state budgets on a simple majority vote.  They’re cooking up some new reforms that made me so frustrated I could have ripped out my eyebrows – if I didn’t have a daughter who knew how to wax them.  At the same time in Sacramento, a group of state employees was in another conference room with another group of California Forward representatives, sharing their perspective of the same topic.  I have a feeling they had a much easier time of it.

The two meetings were part of California Forward’s current effort to gather input from all over the state so it can by synthesized into a new model for governing California, one that would fix things for good, with consensus support.  Or, as the group puts it on its Web site, “We want a government that is small enough to listen, big enough to tackle real problems, smart enough to spend our money wisely, and honest enough to be held accountable for results.”  Good luck with that – especially that last bit about honesty and accountability. After all, we live in the state that designed the California esthetician certificate examination.

I am no fan of California Forward’s work thus far.  Their successful effort to allow the Democrats to pass a state budget without blinking an eye put Sacramento even more firmly into the hands of public employee unions – if such a thing can be imagined – which explains the devious union-funded ads that carried the measure to victory.  And the switch to open primaries?  California Forward thinks it will bring more moderate politics to Sacramento, but it is the sort of progressive reform that spins out unintended consequences like a galaxy spins out stars.

Still, doesn’t it all sound great?  Let’s improve government performance, shift power from Sacramento to local governments that are closer to the people, invest in the future and promote an inclusive democracy.  Only their plan for investing in the future makes much sense.  They would like to see reserves from bountiful tax years committed to paying down debt, with a slice going into an infrastructure fund, so new stuff can be built without taking on more bonded indebtedness.  Although I’m no fan of propositions, I’d vote for that one because the idea is far superior to the state’s current method of using extra money in surplus years to commit the state to more long-term obligations it can’t meet in more meager years, and paying for infrastructure by taking on even more debt.

Everything else the group proposes, unfortunately, is steeped in government-think that actually assumes there is a way to make the heads of government agencies put the public good ahead of their desire to say what’s good for the public, all the while increasing their budgets, staff and power. California Forward thinks government can be effectively reined in by basing budgets on performance, so good practices get bonuses and bad practices get cuts.  That’s the basis of most government reform efforts, and California Forward is taking the approach because it is, at its core, immersed in government-think.

Take the group’s executive director, Jim Mayer, a man with one of the best resumes you’ll find in the California reform business.  He started as a journalist, so he has that high sensibility about government doing things right, and the nose to sniff out wrongdoing.  Then, after picking up a dreaded public policy degree from Cal State Sacramento – the spawning ground of well-pensioned bureaucrats by the thousands – he went on to the reform-bent Little Hoover Committee in 1994, and then to the reform-bent New California Network, and finally to the reform-bent California Forward. In other words, for 17 years, Mayer has been trying to make California better, and it’s only gotten worse.  Our facilitator, Senior Policy Advisor Fred Silva – who offered to buy lunch for whoever asked a question that allowed him to promote the California Forward program – is cut from the same cloth, except that he’s been at it for 36 years.

I can’t speak for everyone in our room of business people, but we sure seemed to agree that this “best practices” government-think approach would lead to nothing more than another series of failed reform efforts.  Most of us are in business and in our world the measurements are pretty straightforward: If you make money, you advance.  If you don’t, you don’t.  But government doesn’t think that way because it’s in the business of spending money, not making money, so government reformers steeped in government-think come up with reforms based on defining, then incentivizing best practices.  The best recent example is the Bush/Kennedy “No Child Left Behind” federal legislation that tied school funding to best practices.  All it got us was more government spending and a generation of students well-schooled in exactly what was needed to ratchet up a school district’s No Child Left Behind best practices measures, as opposed to learning real-world skills. It’s like the esthetician exam on PCP.

Despite all the best efforts of the truly bright people at California Forward and dozens of similar think tanks, I don’t think you can write a proposition or piece of legislation tight enough to stand up to the empire-building trickery of those who have clawed their way to the top of the government biz.  In 30 years of public affairs work, I have seen too many analyses by California state agencies lauding the benefits of programs that in truth accomplished little.  Ah, but the wrap-up studies themselves accomplished a lot.  They justified the money wasted on the last program and glorified the efforts of the staffers, so more money could be taken from the taxpayers, and more staffers could be hired. These new graduates of Cal State Sacramento’s public policy administration program would then join their local public employee unions, contribute a slice of their paychecks to fund a continuing stream of easily manipulated reform propositions, all the while resting assured of comfy CalPERS-funded retirements.

Writing more best practices won’t stop this, because the best practices government is best at are those that justify their spending.  Still, there’s hope for California Forward.  One point of its mission statement is to bring government closer to the people, so I told Fred Silva that no measurements should be established at all.  Just send the money to the most local level of government that can implement what’s to be implemented, and tell them what it can be spent on, without mandates or red tape.  Then, let local government rise to the occasion or fail. If they do well, the people will re-elect them and allow them to do it again.  If they don’t, we’ll toss them out and vote in someone who will try harder.

He didn’t offer to buy me lunch.

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Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.

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