California's Emerging Good Government Coalition

The 2014 mid-term elections will be remembered for many things – pioneering use of information technology to comprehensively profile and micro-target voters, escalating use of polarizing rhetoric, historically low levels of voter turnout, and historic records in total spending. In California, in spite of all this money and technology – or perhaps because of it – the political landscape is probably not going to change very much this time around. But appearances can be deceiving. While Democrats will still control California’s state legislature and nearly all of California’s large cities and urban counties, new fault lines are forming within California’s electorate that defy conventional definitions of Republican and Democrat, or conservative and liberal.

Because as it is, California’s schools are failing, businesses and middle-income residents are fleeing, and the cost of living is the highest in America. Three powerful groups benefit from and perpetuate this arrangement with their money and their votes:  Wealthy individuals and crony capitalists, unionized public sector workers, and low-income residents who have become entirely dependent on government and are susceptible to their rhetoric. The terms of this alliance are financially unsustainable and even now, they harm low income residents more than they help them. It will crack as soon as a viable opposition coalesces. And that is happening.

Here are examples of how coalitions are forming that defy conventional definitions of Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal:

(1)  Financial sustainability is a bipartisan issue.

California’s cities and counties, despite revenues from an unsustainable asset bubble that has bought them time, are on a collision course with financial insolvency. This reality has already confronted every big city mayor in California. Some, including Democrats like San Jose’s courageous mayor Chuck Reed, are trying to enact reforms to save their cities. Over 80% of the non-federal government spending in California is at the local level, and sooner or later, liberals and conservatives are going to join together to demand realistic financial reforms to restore financial health to California’s public institutions.

(2)  Quality public schools is a bipartisan issue.

California’s public schools will not be improved by spending more money, they will be improved by making fundamental reforms to how schools and school districts are managed. The Vergara lawsuit, funded almost entirely by conscientious Democrats, proves how committed everyone is to restoring accountability to public education. The success of charter schools proves that superior educational outcomes can be had for less money than is currently made available to public schools.

(3)  The mission of public sector unions is inherently in conflict with the public interest.

Both of the examples just mentioned – quality education and financial health – are the priority of any civic minded private citizen, but are not the priority of the public sector unions who control California politics. The reason California’s schools are failing is because of union work rules that prevent innovation and accountability. The reason California’s government finances are perennially challenged is because for decades, public sector unions have pressured politicians to grant pay and benefit increases that have become unfair and unaffordable.

(4)  Private sector unions are fundamentally different from public sector unions.

The growing rift within Democrats, and the growing consensus among all California voters, is based on a fundamental fact: Criticizing, or even abolishing, public sector unions does NOT represent an attempt at a broader war on labor, working people, or private sector unions. There are serious issues relating to the role and optimal regulations for private sector unions, but they play a legitimate, vital part in American society. Public sector unions, on the other hand, should be abolished.

(5)  No party, platform, or person has all the answers.

This is not a new reality, but today in California it is being increasingly recognized by reformers across the political spectrum. And there is a new, unifying theme – the need for public sector union reform, fostered through education reform and fiscal reform. While politicians and citizens may disagree over the size of government and the role of government, they are agreeing, more than ever, that government unions have skewed this debate and taken options away. Can we improve and enhance government services, or invest in ambitious new infrastructure projects? No, because tax revenue must pay over-market compensation to government workers. Can we streamline and modernize a government agency or effectively manage a school? No, because of union work rules.

New coalitions are forming that will not accept failing schools, or cities and counties in a perpetual state of financial crisis. They will fight together for educational excellence and fiscal health. And because nothing matters more than our children and our ability to earn a living, they will recognize the unpleasant truth – to restore public education and public finance requires fighting public sector unions.

In California, the outcome of the 2014 election is sadly predictable. But change is coming.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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