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Blue Civil War: The Battle for California

Via Meadia readers know that the most important political battle in America today isn’t the much-ballyhooed battle for the soul of the GOP. It is the blue civil war, pitting key elements of the Democratic coalition against one another as the old social model fails and the growth curve of rising blue model costs runs up against fiscal limits. Blue model policies, whatever their merits, don’t generate the revenue that can support blue model institutions and methods, and when those shortfalls appear, the coalition divides. It’s happened in Wisconsin, it’s happened in Indiana; it’s happened in Michigan and it is happening in California.

The Battle of San Diego is now in full swing. Last summer, voters there approved Prop. B, a ballot measure to reform a pension system whose cost had quintupled in 12 years, eating up revenue for other activities. As politicians struggled to pay off the pension obligations, libraries closed their doors and roads deteriorated. Voters had enough. No longer would they accept service cuts (or tax hikes) to pay to keep unionized public employees in the lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed.

The unions are striking back. A few weeks ago, the Public Employment Relations Board, a quasi-judicial administrative agency for public employees, ruled that “the city failed to negotiate in good faith with its public employee unions before Proposition B was placed on the ballot,” as a local news station reported. In other words, unions believe they should have veto power over which options are put before the voters. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith was not impressed:

“We’re not gonna back down one iota, I can tell you that,” he said. “Because the people do have a right under direct democracy to bypass the city council, to bypass the state legislature, to bypass the labor unions, and to bypass PERB. This is a constitutional right, no different than the first amendment.”

The PERB ruling isn’t binding on the city, but the court battles have already begun. If Prop. B is overturned in court, the city of San Diego stands to lose $27 million.

But if the statewide trend is any indication, that won’t happen. Public employee unions elsewhere in the state are currently losing similar battles against a state employee pension reform bill signed into law last August. And the unions have a surprisingly tough foe in Governor Jerry Brown, who is now going to the mat against the unions on this issue.

It’s a striking sign of the times: in a Democratic trifecta state where Dems control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, the governor is facing down the same unions that conjured up millions of dollars and thousands of supporters to back him. The irony is rich; during Governor Brown’s first two term administration between 1975 and 1983 he helped create the modern California system of powerful government employee unions.

For decades, Democrats have straddled a divide: they sought to represent both the producers of government services and the low and middle income citizens who depend on those services. Democrats want the votes and the contributions of teacher unions, and they want the votes of the parents whose kids attend public schools. As long as the blue model worked, the contradictions could be managed.

Increasingly, however, the contradictions have come to the fore. Teacher unions want life employment for incompetent teachers; their representatives negotiate farcically unsound pension arrangements with complaisant politicians and want taxpayers to pony up when the huge bills come due. Other producers of government services also have their sweetheart deals.

The result is that the consumers of government services, many of whom of course are Democrats, are getting a raw deal. They are paying too much money in taxes to support a system of government that, however outstanding and dedicated some people in it may be, simply cannot deliver acceptable services at a reasonable cost. The Democratic claim to represent both sides fairly is getting harder to sustain.

Republicans right now are largely irrelevant to the blue civil war. The consumers of government services—folks who send their kids to public schools, depend on mass transit, can’t survive in old age without Medicare and Medicaid—want government to work better and more cheaply, but they don’t want it to do less. This is why the Battle of San Diego and similar fights taking place across California are unlikely to redraw partisan lines anytime soon.

But there’s a serious political opportunity in America for a movement that cares deeply about ensuring that the people who need public services (whether provided directly by the state as in public schools or indirectly through vouchers and charter schools) receive good value for their money.  A movement that fights to reform government and make it work, to strip away unnecessary frills and patronage posts, to disempower bureaucracies and return control to citizens and to create a regulatory and legal framework that can bring start ups and jobs into inner cities could change the balance of power in American politics.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the young people who’ve gone into programs like Teach For America, or been active in movements like the effort to rebuild New Orleans begin to think outside the blue box about what kind of agenda America’s troubled cities really need. When and if that happens, the politics of the 2oth century will finally begin to shut down, and the politics of a new and more hopeful era in American life will get under way.

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