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Is California Governable?

Can California be governed? The question was ubiquitous in 2004 when California suffered a major energy crisis that nearly pushed California’s bonds into junk bond status. As Controller, I had to fly back to New York for emergency meetings with Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s to preserve California’s bond ratings.

This year we had a $100B surplus, and one party controls Sacramento. Yet questions about the governability of California are creeping up again.

The data are stark. We’re building 100K new housing units a year when we have a three million unit housing shortfall and need to build 180K units just to begin to catch up. Thousands have fallen through a fraying social safety net and are left to live in tents. Our fourth graders' math scores are 44th nationally. Texas students rank 12th, despite having a larger share of English language learners--and 0% income tax. Clearly, we can do better.

More troubling than the data, is that few people expect those outcomes to change. The San Francisco Chronicle sums up the mood of that city’s residents as “pervasive gloom.” California experienced a net out-migration of nearly 250,000 people last year to other states, as a growing number of people gave up on our state.

When critics were calling California ungovernable in the 2000s, they weren’t wrong. But we responded by reforming the budget process and expanding our rainy day fund that addressed the worst of our governance dysfunction. We created a nonpartisan citizens commission, term limits reform, and a new primary system that opened up opportunities for common sense legislative candidates.

California’s critics will only get louder. Rather than responding defensively, we need to drive a new era of reform. That starts with changing the way our politics are funded, which today allows a few special interests to torpedo efforts to increase our housing stock or move our fourth graders to the top of the class nationally.

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