Governance Budgeting Require Full Overhauls- and We Can Do It

The Sacramento Bee, January 4, 2009
By Leon E. Panetta and Thomas McKernan

California is in the worst fiscal and political crisis of its history. This crisis threatens the future of our economy, our education system, our infrastructure, and the promise that our children can have a better life. California has always been on the cutting edge of the future, but it cannot respond to crisis if its governing system is dysfunctional.

To change, we must reinvent how we govern ourselves. This is the goal of California Forward, a bipartisan and public-interest governance-reform effort we helped launch in 2008.

The political and fiscal future of California will be shaped this year as business, community, and political leaders respond to the acute economic crisis that has amplified the state’s chronic financial woes. While balancing the state budget should remain a high priority, it is clear that the final plan will require a more fundamental restructuring of government.

We’re past the point where marginal changes are meaningful and where crisis merely presents opportunity. Just as natural disasters demand immediate action, the political and fiscal failures of modern California require an urgent response that transcends partisanship.

In our democratic tradition, crisis has provided opportunity for making difficult reforms. Our Constitution creates in government the venue for shaping and enacting those improvements. But when those in government are unable to do so, the people must make change happen.

California’s future depends on whether we will become part of a constituency for change – a strong and persistent voice for better government that cannot be ignored. We, the voters, are responsible for getting our state on the right track.

Conversations in 2008 with California leaders – from the private sector, local government and civic organizations – show there is the political will for this change, but it must be coordinated, and the people need the chance to help shape a solution.

Reaching bipartisan accord will require the best public leaders, responsive and accountable deliberative bodies, expert and result- focused public managers, and an informed, engaged public. It is more than a dream. It is an achievable goal.

California’s future requires elected leaders who focus on public engagement to develop a common understanding of problems we face, and an election system that rewards leaders for solving problems.

California’s future requires a budget process that produces balanced plans, ensures solid long-term investments and holds down costs of providing services while directing funds to programs that improve lives.

California’s future requires a restructured revenue system that is more transparent and reliable.

California’s future requires a government system that has the capacity to break through political gridlock and enact meaningful change.

Every day, Californians transform this state – as entrepreneurs, creators, volunteers and community leaders. They are engaging in the global economy and participating politically in new ways. Their future – our future – requires a state government that is a driving force for, not a drag against, innovation and transparency. Hastening this transformation is the mission of California Forward and, we hope, the future of California. And we want you to join us.

Leon E. Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from Monterey and White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Thomas McKernan, CEO of the Automobile Club of Southern California and a Republican, are co-chairmen of California Forward (, a bipartisan reform effort seeking long-term changes to the state’s political and fiscal systems.