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County Treasurer and former Assemblyman Fred Keeley on the political schism that won't be resolved by the May 19 election.

By Fred Keeley

What is the May 19 Special Election really all about? Power. While television ads would lead a person to believe that the election is about ratifying a $40 billion solution to California's budget problems, it is not that simple. The actual battle is between two irreconcilable belief systems concerning the roles and functions of state government: Republican and Democratic.

The Democratic belief system holds that state government exists to have robust programs of public education, health and human services and corrections so that virtually everyone, regardless of where they start in life, will have a chance (or even a second or third chance) to succeed.

The Republican belief system tells us that state government is mostly an assemblage of social experiments that, on the whole, diverts funds from the private sector, which is much better at providing real, market-responsive opportunities for motivated people. Republicans believe, for example, that the "government schools" are the hostages of teachers unions, and that throwing more money at the problem is wasteful.

In the venue of the California Legislature, these two belief systems battle day and night, and never more so than during the deliberations and maneuvering that lead to the adoption of the state's annual budget.

The core reason that Republicans are in an uproar over the fragile budget deal reached in February is that they were on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically change the architecture of California government. If the budget battles had gone on for a mere two or three more weeks, the State of California would have run out of cash, and the only solution, according to Republican legislators, would have been to re-engineer California government. That re-engineering would have included at least major restructuring of public education--think school vouchers, which leave public schools with the responsibility to educate special needs students and few funds with which to do it--and corrections/prisons (think here of the Corrections Corporation of America).

These are but two examples of how Republican legislators see a better future, one where private-sector principles of management and competition are applied to public sector functions. This is, essentially, a dismantling of California government as we have come to know it.

The May 19 Special Election will result in the failure of all measures except for the last measure on the ballot, which prohibits legislators from receiving a salary increase in years where the budget is in deficit. When those measures fail, Republican legislators will once again have the chance to re-engineer California's state government. Democrats will either have to offer real reform of the governance process or face the real possibility that a minority within a minority party will prevail.

The group California Forward is working on nonpartisan budget reforms to assist in solving this dilemma. The reforms would include two-year budgeting, a "lock box" for revenue surpluses and a change in the vote threshold for approving the budget. We must on May 20 be prepared to advance a comprehensive package of governance reforms that will provide modern tools for governance in the 21st century.

Fred Keeley is the elected treasurer of Santa Cruz County; an appointee of the state Senate to the Governor's Commission on the 21st Century Economy; a member of the board of directors of California Forward; and a former state assemblymember representing the Monterey Bay area.

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