26 October 2008

The People's Business

The Legislature of the State of California wasted almost three months after the beginning of the fiscal year (that began July 1) before they were forced by public exasperation and their own need to campaign to approve a budget. The budget that was passed is a patchwork of ill-considered gimmicks and trade-offs, the only one redeeming value being that it was passed and signed so that people and companies working for the state could finally be paid. (The legislators were paid throughout the process.) By law the Governor is required to submit a proposed budget to the State Legislature at the beginning of the calendar year, and the Legislature is required to pass a budget bill back to the executive so that it can become law before the beginning of the fiscal year. The executive did his job, but the legislators did not. The main problem was pertinacious partisanship, perhaps compounded by incompetence and avarice.

In any business the leaders of the organization responsible for missing such a major deadline resulting in inflicting such colossal burdens on the clients, the suppliers, and the investors would have been summarily fired. There are no unusual events or extenuating circumstances to provide even a flimsy excuse for the failure. The costs of the delay by any measure: dollars, lost service, avoidable medical complications, personal and business bankruptcy, job loss, loss of trust, partisan animosity, compromised public safety, etc., far exceed any possible savings, policy or political advantage. The legislative leadership simply refused to work in good faith on a time line that was an honest effort to meet the legal deadline. In short they abrogated their duty to do the people's business. They should be thrown out of office; but since they are elected, only their constituents have that right. Instead I suggest that they be judicially censured and removed from positions of legislative leadership.

The process of budgeting is a tactical exercise done within a strategic framework. It can have enormous long-term implications. Herein lies the basic issue. The modus operandi of legislators has become a toxic brew of dogmatic inflexibility, position spinning to gain poll position, and 'good old boy' backroom deals. The key motivation, once elected, is to perpetuate the perks and the power. Not part of the equation is an ongoing concern for and evaluation of the impact of their actions on the long term (i.e.; beyond the next election cycle).

In fairness, the the problem is not endemic to the legislative chambers; rather it is rooted in the soil of an electorate that in general accepts clever sound-bite slogans and propaganda slickly packaged in 30 or 60 second portions. As a direct result many unknowingly vote in ways that are at odds with their own self-interest, let alone that of the state or nation.

Some suggest that term limits are a way to address the inbred cronyism of the legislature. However, the real effect of the arbitrary limits seems to reinforce and amplify the the need for the elected to find ways to perpetuate the perks and the power beyond elected office. Furthermore, the competent and true servants of the people are systematically removed from the organization just when they have had the chance to gain the knowledge and understanding necessary to make intelligent changes in the unbelievably complex system of laws and regulations that govern us. Once again, long-term considerations are sacrificed to short-term expediency as a result of a mindless and futile attempt to mandate ethical behavior by fiat.

Another consequence of malaise in California is the abrogation of legislative responsibility in favor of "Measures Submitted to the Voters". There are a dozen such Propositions on the ballot this election and just as many or more every time - sometimes even a special election is called (at tremendous cost) to deal with these measures. These propositions entail complex financial, legal, structural, and process changes in the way the state operates. They are difficult to understand and evaluate, and inevitably some aspects of each one is controversial. So the elected representatives, fearful that taking a correct but controversial stand may adversely affect their ability to stay on the gravy train, foist the decision on the ill-equipped electorate. The mass of voters then proceed to make a decision based on the most convenient "information" available: packaged neatly in 30-second capsules prepared and paid for by the minority of special interests that will benefit most or be damaged the most by the outcome.

Fortunately at the federal level, constitutional amendment and national referenda are difficult. The founding fathers were incredibly wise in devising a system that can both respond quickly in an emergency: the Executive; and at the same time cannot quickly change the laws of the land to appease the cause célèbre du jour: the Legislature. Unfortunately Capitol Hill is not immune to the infection just because they cannot pass legislative responsibilities directly onto the voters, and are not subject to term limits. In Congress they have learned to bundle the unpalatable toxins of the special interests together with Federal manna to create a fantasy of public good while feathering their nest-eggs, pampering the powerful, and pandering to the dogmatic zealots.

In the upcoming elections I hope that we can move forward to "throw the bums out" (from both parties) and elect those that will truly and not expediently put the people and the world first. I hope those elected are the ones with the intellectual capability to formulate new solutions to the unknown and unknowable challenges of the future. Those who have learned how to learn, and how to analyze complex situations, and how to communicate to the masses that what may seem a harder path will be a better route in the long run. I hope we can avoid those who claim to know the answers because of their experience, their faith, or their grit. We need to elect those who graduated at the top of their class, not the ones who put their party (and partying) first. And finally I hope that our elected representatives at all levels will in fact represent us; that they will do the difficult job of figuring out what will serve us best collectively. That they will do the people's business with efficacy, and that the hopes and needs of the many will outweigh the avarice of the few.

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