The untapped power of the Legislature

Los Angeles Times, 10/10/11

A rich Bay Area investor wants to see more quality in Sacramento. It’s not about politics; it’s about courageous lawmakers.

by George Skelton

Occasionally someone will hit the nail on the head in Sacramento. And when that happens, it bears repeating. One recent example of right-on rhetoric:

• The office of state legislator is extraordinarily powerful. It’s more important to the daily lives of ordinary citizens than even the exalted post of U.S. senator.

• Regardless, people pay relatively little attention to what’s happening in Sacramento, especially the doings of the lawmakers they elect.

• A handful of thoughtful, courageous legislators could shake up and change the performance of the state Capitol. All that’s needed are some brave politicians who aren’t afraid to lose an election.

But the first two points are smack on the mark.

The job of state legislator is much underrated and undervalued. Too many good people just won’t run for the office.

Those committed and courageous enough to enter the political arena too often insist on starting near the top of the ladder and quickly fall off. They wouldn’t deign to be a lowly legislator.

And, in truth, unless there’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Ronald Reagan as governor, state government ranks well below the nation’s capital and City Hall as an object of interest for ordinary citizens. It always has, especially these days.

The fellow who has been making these points isn’t exactly a favorite of the Sacramento political community. That gives him the freedom, however, to speak his mind without the fear of ruffling feathers.

He’s David Crane, 57, a multimillionaire investor, close friend of Schwarzenegger’s and the former governor’s special advisor on jobs and economic growth.

Crane is a registered Democrat. But he often didn’t sound like one while working for the Republican governor, particularly his attacks on the public employee retirement system, a seeming obsession.

Crane insists he has never criticized the size of pension payouts to retirees, especially for teachers. His loud complaint has been that state government and the employees haven’t been contributing enough into the retirement system to sustain the promised pensions. And, of course, he’s right. That has begun to change.

Ask around Sacramento about Crane and you hear descriptions like “arrogant” and “bridge burner.” Schwarzenegger nominated him to two posts — the teachers’ retirement board and the UC Board of Regents — and the state Senate wouldn’t confirm him.

Crane isn’t a skilled politician, let alone a diplomat. But his head’s on straight when it comes to assessing the Legislature’s potential power and an ingrained problem, the lawmakers’ dominant instinct for political survival.

Crane has teamed with two other rich Bay Area investors — Republican Ron Conway and independent Greg Penner — to create a nonpartisan committee to help bankroll legislative candidates they like in next year’s elections. They call themselves Govern for California.

“When it comes to jobs, education, health, safety, transportation, environmental protection and more,” Crane writes in promoting the committee, “little matters more than state legislatures.

“This is especially true in California, where a single state legislator can have more impact than even a U.S. senator … on the daily lives of ordinary citizens. This year the California Legislature will levy $120 billion of taxes and fees, spend more than $200 billion, including federal funds, influence the education of nine million students….

“Yet citizens pay little attention to the 120 members of the Legislature. If they did, they might be surprised to learn a few things.”

Then the darts fly.

Democrats profess support for university students, state parks and safety nets for the poor, Crane complained in an interview, but cut their funding while boosting compensation for unionized prison guards.

Republicans preach job creation, he continued, but refuse to eliminate a tax break that rewards corporations for hiring and expanding out of state. They cry out for pension and regulatory reforms, but stubbornly reject Democratic offers to give in on those issues in exchange for higher taxes.

“We need a revenue increase,” he asserted. “If for nothing else than to help pay down the unfunded retirement liabilities without crushing all the other stuff — higher education, welfare, parks, justice….”

“There’ll have to be a grand bargain” including higher taxes, deeper cuts in services, state payroll reductions.

The Legislature’s “missing ingredient is courage,” Crane says. For Democrats, that “means the nerve to stand up to government employee unions.” It means the same for Republicans, he adds, plus bucking corporations and anti-tax groups.

“There are three reasons for optimism,” he writes.

• Two election reforms will be implemented next year: An open primary and honest redistricting. Combined, they could lead to the election of more legislators who are centrists willing to compromise.

• In low-profile legislative races, “concentrated political spending and activity by engaged citizens can have a real impact.”

• Of the 120 legislative seats, 100 are contested every two years, so “change can happen quickly.”

It can, but no one’s venturing out on a limb to predict the outcome of next year’s legislative elections. It’s uncharted territory.

“There’s now an opportunity for courageous candidates to emerge,” Crane says.

His group is prepared to ante up at least $600,000 — “whatever it takes” to elect “a few good people…. I’d be happy with one….

“The scarce resource is not going to be the money. The scarce resource is the candidates.”

Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t he run?

“I live in San Francisco. I couldn’t get elected. I’m hated by state employees,” Crane replies. “And no way am I and my wife leaving the city.”

Yes, getting good people to run for the lowly Legislature is a problem.

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