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California, Here We Come

A number of years ago

A number of years ago, when I would travel to California on business with my friend, the late journalist and comedy writer Eliot Wald, we always carved out time to visit a couple of those massive Los Angeles grocery chains, like Ralph’s or Vons.

It wasn’t because we had a lust for retail or a massive munchie attack. Rather, we geekily would explore the aisles looking for the odd new products that had started in California, stuff we figured might soon migrate East. Like those big cardboard shades people prop up against the front windows of their parked cars to keep the interior from getting overheated. One of many brilliant California inventions descended from a long line of greats: the Hula Hoop and Frisbee, the Popsicle and the Zamboni ice-cleaning machine.

Eventually, Eliot moved to LA, where he could continue the pursuit full-time. I still feel it’s a nice place to visit, but why risk earthquakes or earning millions in the movie business?

Nonetheless, I continue to watch out for California innovations and keep an eye on the store shelves when I’m there. The state remains a harbinger of things to come. These days, though, what California’s exporting – besides Chihuahuas to needy families east of the Rockies – is more disturbing.

On second thought, those Chihuahuas are pretty unsettling, too. You probably heard the story – the tiny dogs became big in California after such movies as “Legally Blond” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and because Paris Hilton frequently was seen toting one around. Now they’ve gone into turnaround; their popularity has plummeted and there’s a plethora of the diminutive pooches, seduced and abandoned. So they’re being airlifted away from California animal shelters and euthanasia to welcoming homes elsewhere, as long as they’re not on Homeland Security’s new and improved “no fly” list.

But I digress. This week, term-limited Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his last State of the State address as governor of California, and the prospects he outlined were not pleasing.

Despite his calls for an overhaul of the tax system and a proposed constitutional amendment to reverse the amounts of money California spends on education and its penal system, the state still has a $20 billion deficit with which to deal, and as Michael Rothfeld of the Los Angeles Times noted, “Legislators have already begun sensing that as a lame duck [Schwarzenegger] is easy prey and openly disregard some of his wishes. Members of his staff have already been quitting, and replacements are hard to come by.”

Sadly, this time what California has gotten hold of ahead of the rest of the country is total political dysfunction. In part it’s spurred by the requirement that anything having to do with taxes or the budget has to be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature. But it has been exacerbated by increased polarization and backbiting.

As Washington Post columnist and blogger Ezra Klein – a Californian – wrote last Sunday, “The state let its political dysfunctions go unaddressed. Most assumed that the legislature’s bickering would be cast aside in the face of an emergency. But the intransigence of California’s legislators has not softened despite the spiraling unemployment, massive deficits and absence of buoyant growth on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact. The minority party spied opportunity in fiscal collapse. If the majority failed to govern the state, then the voters would turn on them, or so the theory went.

“That raises a troubling question: What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?”

We’ve seen the answer in the first year of the current Congress, and if early prognostications for the midterm elections are remotely accurate, it’s only going to get worse. Klein writes, “Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both. And make no mistake: Congress will need to do hard things, and soon….

“No one who watched the health-care bill wind its way through the legislative process believes Congress is ready for the much harder and more controversial cost-cutting that will be necessary in the future…. The lesson of California is that a political system too dysfunctional to avert crisis is also too dysfunctional to respond to it.”

Once again, it’s time to climb to the battlements for comprehensive campaign finance reform, as money is fueling much of the lunatic partisan rancor that has us at impasse. What’s more, this idea of a Supermajority in the Senate – the abuse of the rule that 60 votes are necessary to end debate or nothing gets done, a notion that’s not in the Constitution (it calls for simple majority rule, except in limited cases such as an impeachment trial, expulsion of a member, treaty ratification or overriding a presidential veto) – has to go.

Otherwise, nothing gets done. We may as well take our Chihuahuas and go home.

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