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July 28, 2009

deliberation and the California budget mess

A concrete proposal for a deliberative public forum made it to today's Times op-ed page. Chris Elmendorf and Ethan J. Leib call for a "citizens assembly" that would meet when the legislature deadlocks on a budget. The California legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass a budget and labors under many constraints created by initiatives. It has a chronic problem of failing to pass decent, reasonable budgets on time, a problem that reached a critical stage this year when the largest American state issued IOUs in lieu of real checks.

Other activists are causing for a constitutional convention--which could be called the "nuclear option" of public deliberation, because it would enlist a deliberative group in blowing up the whole constitution and starting over. The Elmendorf and Lieb proposal is much more modest. In fact, it might cause elected officials to propose moderate budgets in order to avoid a deadlock and then a loss of power to the citizen's assembly.

I presume citizen participants would be randomly selected and paid for their time. They would consider various alternative budgets, hear from experts, talk (a lot), and decide. As a populist reform, it beats the initiative and referendum on two grounds. First, it's deliberative--people exchange ideas and evidence before they vote. Second, the subject of deliberation is the whole budget, not an individual yes-or-no proposition like capping taxes or reducing class sizes. You're really not acting responsibly as a participant in self-government unless you are willing to make tradeoffs.

Whatever one thinks of this particular proposal, I would argue that California's problems are civic, not economic. Legislators could balance the budget by raising taxes and/or cutting spending; they don't need aid from outside, which would only encourage them to continue their irresponsibility. Their civic problems lie partly in the rules of the formal political system, but another cause is a relatively weak civil society. The newspapers that cover state and metropolitan issues are inadequate, for example. Californians have plenty of civic assets, as well, but they need to mobilize them much better.

July 28, 2009 1:45 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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