Decorate the tree you will.
California is famously short of dollars for its budget, but the state suffers no shortage of policy ideas. Hundreds of bills become law each year, and this was no exception.
But some policy ideas stand out and come to dominate conversation, for reasons good and bad. So -- with no endorsement of said ideas -- here are my nominations for the top 5 California policy ideas of 2011, in reverse order:
5. Keeping the kids off tanning beds.
Yes, California's leaders, in the face of a persistent governance and budget crisis, found time for legislation that bans teenagers from using tanning beds. This was not only a job-killer (though where was the chamber of commerce protest?) but also a culture killer in coastal Southern California. But it earned this nomination as a representative act of a legislature that thinks small even when the times require big solutions.
On the other hand, maybe this law showed foresight. With the budget crisis forcing constant cuts in schools, California kids may have fewer days in school -- and thus more time to burn themselves in tanning beds. A preventitive measure.
4. Hybrid pensions.
The righteous middle, in pursuing pension reform, has fetished this half-measure: keeping some defined benefit pensions (for future public workers) and combining it with a 401k-style account. This hybrid approach drew support from the Little Hoover Commission and Gov. Jerry Brown, and in the still somewhat unlikely event that changes are made to thep ension system, a hybrid is likely to emerge as a model. Other states have done it. The problem: it's far from clear this saves much money.
3. The Think Long Jedi Council.
California's leaders love to talk about democracy, even though much of California's democracy is illusory. The Think Long Committee of elders and experts, assembled by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, went the other way, with the most provocative series of reform proposals in years. At the heart of the proposal is the creation of a 13-person committee (not unlike the 12-member Jedi Council of the Star Wars movies) that would be appointed to long terms and be charged with dealing with long-term structural issues. This was denounced as democratic, though the idea of giving agency to, well, somebody in California government is intriguing.
The only noun used more often than "realignment" in California this year was "Kardashian." Gov. Brown gave the name "realignment" to his proposal to send some authority and some money for some programs to local governments. Local governments had mixed views, with some welcoming the authority and others wondering why there wasn't more money in the deal. The big problem with the proposal is that the state still makes the rules and holds the purse strings in these programs. But a true realignment -- which would require giving local governments full authority to raise revenue for such program -- does not appear to be on the policy table.
1. Trigger cuts.
Gov. Jerry Brown's use of triggers was by far the shrewdest political innovation of 2011. Emphasis on political. As polciy, triggers are little more than an elaborate gimmick for disguising deficits and debt. Here's how it worked. The state closed the budget by assuming $4 billion in additional revenue. When that revenue didn't materialize (estimates said the state was more than $2.5 billion short), $1 billion in pre-determined cuts were automatically triggered. Yes, that's less than the deficit, but the media and credit rating agencies accepted this gimmick as some measure of honesty. Brown has already said he'll do something similar next year, with trigger cuts being imposed if voters don't approve new taxes on the November ballot.
Happy New Year!