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Do California politicians have too little power?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Do Californians suffer because they themselves have too much political power, and their representatives too little?

Politicians tend to say “yes.” So do their hangers-on.

George Mitrovich’s fiery indictment of California voters and policymakers for the San Diego Transcript, in a column entitled “The Failed State of California,” is an unsurprising example. According to Mitrovich, a self-avowed liberal Democrat, California’s humongous deficits and other troubles are the combined fault of Governor Schwarzenegger, voters, lawmakers, and special interests — an indictment so generalized that its sheer vacuity might pass for a selling point.

But then you notice something. If voters, unions, businesses, and the legislature all share in the blame for the state’s sorry state, why is it that Mitrovich only seeks to limit the political power — and interests — of voters?

Each point of Mitrovich’s four-pronged cure for the current budget and economic mess focuses only on the citizenry:

First, Mitrovich wants to get rid of Proposition 13, progenitor of the tax rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, which limited the extent to which politicians could weigh down home owners with property taxes.

Second, he wants to scuttle the requirement for a two-thirds legislative majority to raise taxes on hapless taxpayers.

Third, Mitrovich wants to terminate term limits.

Mitrovich contends that term limits expel “experience” from Sacramento, as if nobody could ever gain knowledge of policy or evince worthy qualities of leadership outside the hallowed confines of an impenetrable legislative fiefdom — and as if permanently entrenched corruption and chronically uncompetitive elections were the inalienable hallmark of hearty representative government.

His insinuation is that politicians with unlimited terms would be more responsible in their spending habits. But there is precious little evidence for this. It is, indeed, all faith on his part, faith contra evidence.

Consider the situation in Washington, DC, where senators and representatives can and have clung to their seats for decades. Studies conducted of congressional legislative records by the Cato Institute and others indicate that the longer politicians are ensconced in office, the more likely they are to support profligate spending. This is true even of many congressmen who begin their tenures as committed fiscal conservatives.

California's political imbalances clearly predate term limits. Had term limits not been put in place for California in 1990, the state would probably have hit bankruptcy a few years earlier.

His general point about “experience” also finds a rather obvious bit of evidence to the contrary: The multifariously bungled “deregulation” of the California electric industry of the 1990s, was enacted before the effects of term limits began ousting long-term incumbents in 1996.

This and countless other legislative fiascos belies the notion of the inalienable competence of electorally unassailable time-servers.

Mitrovich crowns his argument by noting that even George Will, patron saint of conservatism, is a staunch foe of term limits. He quotes Will as saying, ”We have term limits. It’s called the ballot box,” which most readers have heard, since this persistent little aphorism (or some minor variant) has been echoed throughout the union for years.

”That’s right, the ballot box!” Mitrovich exclaims. “What is there about that you don’t understand?”

Oh dear. We’re all just so terribly stupid, aren’t we?

Mitrovich’s cited authority is not quite as apt as he hoped, however. He appears to have fallen behind in his reading. It is true that, once upon a time, Mr. George F. Will did oppose term limits. But he changed his mind in the early 1990s. Will even wrote a book making a thoughtful case for term limits, entitled Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy.

As recently as last October, we find George Will in print chastising New York City Mayor Bloomberg and others for acting to circumvent term limits, concluding: “Yet again, the political class’ reaction to term limits is a powerful, indeed sufficient argument for them.”

Siding with the political class, and against the people, is par for political insiders and their dependents, of course. Mitrovich further shows his allegiance in targeting the citizen initiative. In the fourth prong of his program to fix Californian woes, he aims to strip Californians of the right to make law directly. After all, only when the people are deprived of any direct means whatsoever of countering the abuses and irresponsibility of the political class will it be easy as pie for politicians and special interests to carry on their abusive and irresponsible ways.

Part of the problem in California — as in the country generally — is institutional; part of it is ideological; part of it is that too many people want to eat their cake and save it for later, too.

But the institutional solutions required are not the kind that Mitrovich propounds; the ideological shift necessary runs to a pole quite opposite from his; the problem of greed and short-sightedness has been exacerbated (not assuaged) by the sort of politicians he admires.

Take each of Mitrovich's points and reverse them. Strengthen Prop 13-type limitations. Add more supermajority requirements to stem the cancerous growth of government. Keep term limits and apply them to more offices. And, yes, uphold the initiative and referendum as integral to citizen control.

Those are all better first steps to ensuring that California will not slide further into the sea of insolvency.

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