How democracy reform aids economic growth in California - Open Primaries
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How democracy reform aids economic growth in California

Posted by Russell Daniels on October 28, 2019 at 10:31 PM

How democracy reform aids economic growth in California

written by Steve Westly for the San Diego Union-Tribune

The media likes to portray California as a state controlled hook, line and sinker by a far left Democratic Party. This caricature dominates news coverage, particularly since the passage of Assembly Bill 5 to regulate Uber and other actors in the growing gig economy.

It’s a convenient label. The Left Coast. The People’s Republic of California. All except for the fact that business is thriving in California and our economy is growing twice as fast as the country as a whole. I think the passage of Assembly Bill 5 presents an opportunity to present a different look at what is really going on in California.

Twenty years ago, our state was in shambles. Brownouts, deficits, legislative dysfunction, institutionalized incumbency protection, late budgets and simmering voter disgust. We were ranked 50th in the country in legislative competition. It took the recall of our governor to drive home just how serious the voters were about ending the status quo.

Ten years ago, Californians enacted two sweeping political reforms to give voters more power and reduce the control of the political parties over every aspect of politics: open primaries and nonpartisan redistricting. Legislative and financial transparency. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger led a diverse coalition of Republicans and Democrats who came together to completely overhaul our political process.

Since those reforms took effect in 2012, California is booming. Business, labor, environment, agriculture, tech, immigrants, urban and rural all have a seat at the table. Problems get solved. The Legislature is able to work in a bipartisan fashion on complicated issues like economic growth, cap-and-trade and gun regulation. Republican and Democratic lawmakers frequently develop and sponsor legislation together. Budgets are passed on time. As Schwarzenegger and Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna noted last year in the Washington Post, “a better political culture has emerged, with more and more legislators governing for the people they represent, not just special interests and party bosses in proverbial smoke-filled rooms.”

Congress and most legislatures remain gridlocked. A recent Harvard Business School report, “Problems Unsolved and a Nation Divided,” discusses how there has been little meaningful progress on the critical policy steps needed to restore U.S. competitiveness in the last decade as legislative productivity has decreased rapidly. It concludes that “dysfunction in America’s political system is now the single most important challenge to U.S. economic progress” as it fails to deliver practical solutions to the problems our nation faces.

Voter empowerment reforms like open primaries and nonpartisan redistricting have allowed the same spirit of innovation that dominates the private sector to develop in government without the shackles of hyperpartisanship. I don’t always agree with all of our legislative decisions, but the process is healthy, inclusive, open and serious.

Democrats still dominate. But under a nonpartisan system, Democrats cannot ignore their Republican and independent constituents. Legislators must build coalitions and engage with voters, policy groups and non-Democratic colleagues if they want to remain in office. They represent their constituents, not the special-interest groups that make up the inner core of the party. They are willing and able to go against their own party leadership on important issues of policy. The same holds true for Republicans.

The business community is able to build coalitions with the types of diverse partners that aren’t always possible in partisan-dominated systems, like joining with the environmental community on cap and trade legislation.

Compare with states like North Carolina, whose hyperpartisan environment has led to a focus on legislation like the Transgender Bathroom Bill, which led to a boycott that negatively impacted the economy.

The media can dismiss California as the Left Coast. But we’re also the world’s fifth largest economy, and we are a laboratory for democracy.

We’ve shown the way to bridge toxic partisanship and dysfunction is to give the voters more power and mobility. We have shown that economic vibrancy and aggressive environmental protection is not only possible but achievable. Our state still has massive problems, like affordable housing and closing the achievement gap. But we have a democracy that allows us to address these tough problems. That’s California.


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