While the federal government, hijacked by Tea Party extremists, has stagnated in gridlock and a recent shutdown, Sacramento has been quietly showing this year what government can do when it functions well.
The State Legislature significantly reformed school funding, increasing education dollars for all California students but especially for those students who need it the most. We raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2016, which will be the highest in the nation, an important step to close the gap in a time of growing income inequality. We passed legislation that recognizes the contributions and hard work of immigrants — granting the undocumented driver’s licenses and passing the Trust Act, which limits police from detaining people for deportation if arrested for a misdemeanor — signaling a willingness to lead on immigration issues in the near future if Congress can’t or won’t.
While many states have limited women’s access to abortion services, California expanded access this year, allowing trained nurse practitioners to provide first-trimester services.
These are bold, progressive changes, aimed at improving the quality of life for all Californians. But these changes have been paired with a fiscal restraint that has helped us regain public confidence and pass balanced, responsible budgets. California is often referred to as the state that leads the nation. After years of careening from budget crisis to budget crisis, we are leading the nation once again.
What caused the turnaround? And where do we go from here?
A systemic change three years ago laid important groundwork. In 2010, voters passed Proposition 25, giving legislators the ability to pass a majority vote budget. Previously, a two-thirds vote requirement allowed the minority party to hijack the process, leading to protracted negotiations and chronically late budgets that dashed public confidence in our ability to get things done. Before it passed, there was skepticism about what Proposition 25 might accomplish, given that a supermajority vote requirement would be and still is required to bring in more revenue. But Proposition 25 ultimately brought us in line with 47 other states and made our budget system functional again.
Without this increase in public confidence, it’s questionable whether a vital lynchpin in our turnaround –Proposition 30 – would have been passed by voters two years later. Proposition 30’s temporary tax increases have helped stop the bleeding and stabilize the budget and school funding as well as the funding for other important public services and responsibilities.
Though significant challenges remain to repair the damage done by the Wall Street–induced recession of 2008, an economic turnaround has brought a much-needed uptick in jobs and revenue into the state.
Political gains and personalities have made a difference, too. An unforeseen result of the Citizens Redistricting Commission was political wins for Democrats. This cleared the path for budgets and legislation to pass with greater ease. We now have not just a Democratic majority, but a supermajority in the Senate and a possible supermajority in the Assembly in the near future. We also have a Democratic governor. Unlike his “outsider” predecessor with movie star credentials, Jerry Brown, a political native with decades of government experience, has shown he has an uncanny knack for reading the public and getting the job done.
California is moving forward, but our work is far from done. While fiscal austerity has served us well recently, when the time is right, we need to rebuild, not just cut. Our roads, highways, and bridges have been neglected. Social programs that help families have been cut to the bone. We have work to do to protect our environment and our natural resources. The tax increases we passed via Proposition 30 are set to expire in the next few years, and our schools, community colleges, and universities remain significantly underfunded. We have no certainties that economic progress will continue in a strong, upward trajectory. We live in a competitive 21st-century world, and we must keep pace. Without prudent but significant investment, our recent progress will be short-lived and short-sighted.
Yet compared to our past dysfunctions and those of Congress, California’s accomplishments this year are worth getting excited about. They have set us on a trajectory of success, based on progressive values, that has made the Golden State begin to feel golden again. Now it is up to us to envision the future of this state, one that depends on excellent schools, renowned universities, and a vibrant economy, and seize the opportunity to make it happen.
State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson represents the 19th Senate District, which includes all of Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County.