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"Voters, 'be careful what you wish for'"

By Jonathan Edwards | Enterprise staff writer | January 11, 2010



A man in the middle row listened to Kimberly Nalder talk about the sad quagmire of California politics, and he had a three-word summary: Voters are stupid.

'I don't want (that) to be the take-home message,' Nalder told a Monday night crowd of about 50 at the Odd Fellows Hall on Second Street. They're 'uninformed, and there's a big difference between those two.'

But voters will have to know about the slew of reform measures likely to face them in the coming years if the state wants to close its $20.7 billion deficit, mend a broken budget process and govern effectively, Nalder said.

If they don't, those so-called reforms might create bigger problems 30 years down the road.

'You have to be careful what you wish for,' Nalder said.

An associate professor in Sacramento State University's department of government, Nalder came to Davis as the guest of Saving California Communities. The group of local politicos believes the dysfunction of the state budget process has reached 'crisis proportions,' and they want permanent change.

'It's the schools; it's our roadways; it's our parks - it's every single aspect of the communities of California that is threatened by the continued morass we're in,' said Don Saylor, the city's mayor pro tem and a candidate for Yolo County supervisor.

Big people are considering big changes to overhaul California politics. Repair California is calling for a constitutional convention to change the state at its most fundamental level.

California Forward, led by former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, doesn't go as far as a convention. Still, the group wants to use the voter-driven initiative process to create a two-year budget cycle, lower the threshold for lawmakers to pass a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority and force legislators to find the money needed to support a program before creating it.

'Californians have a history of grasping at big changes,' Nalder said. 'We've tended to do things that are rather drastic.' She cited Prop. 13, legislative term limits, and the 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis and simultaneous election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But those sweeping reforms have had 'unintended consequences that are negative for the state,' Nalder said.

Prop. 13, for example, capped how much property taxes could increase. But the measure also has stopped people from moving. Empty-nest retirees, for example, stay in their house instead of moving into a smaller place because of the tax ramifications.

It's also created inequality in business. The better-educated, wealthiest Californians tend not to know that Prop. 13 applies to businesses as well, Nalder said. But it does, and so newer outfits have to charge higher prices to cover their higher property taxes.

Voters chose to enact term limits in 1990 to take special interests out of politics, Nalder said. Term limits had the opposite effect, however, as Sacramento lost experienced legislators. Power shifted to the staffers and lobbyists who have 20 or 30 years of Capitol life under their belt.

Lobbyists also are capitalizing on naive voters, who are swayed by misleading advertising campaigns for ballot initiatives. Yeah, high-speed rail 'sounds great; it sounds green; it sounds fun.'

But voters view the idea as disconnected from anything else. In reality, however, spending billions on the project means there's billions less for other programs.

'Voters don't have that bird's-eye view,' Nalder said.

They also want something for nothing, she added.

'We expect to have the best public universities, excellent public parks, a state-funded firefighting system ... the list goes on and on and on.

'At the same time, we don't want to pay for it.'

She compared voters to an out-of-shape slob who's hired to personal trainer to help turn a flabby belly into chiseled abs. The trainee willingly admits: 'I'm overweight and out of shape, but there's two things I won't do: I won't exercise, and I won't eat less, but let's go for it.'

'We expect all these things, but we don't want to do the difficult changes that would actually make that happen.'

- Reach Jonathan Edwards at or (530) 747-8052. Comment on this story at

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