Thursday, March 10, 2005

Is political capital something to spend?

One of the big discussions in Sacramento is whether the Governor has a set of ideas that will make sense to the voters or whether he has bit off more than he can chew. In creating his initiatives he has taken on a number of important interest groups - including the nurses (on mandated staffing ratios), teachers (on merit pay and an appropriate definition of the school funding guarantee - Proposition 98), public employees in general (on significantly generous pension policies) and even the culture of spending/budgeting in the capitol (on creating an expenditure limitation stronger than the one adopted last year) and then finally the political establishment (on how districts are drawn for the legislature and other district based offices).

Conventional wisdom suggests that the combination of forces will ultimately become too much to bear for him and that he will be unsuccessful. You can't take on all of those forces - they call the shots.

But conventional wisdom, as it often is in politics, may be wrong. The combined resentments of voters may be enough to overturn conventional wisdom. Most, if not all voters, do not have a defined benefit pension that allows you to retire with benefits for life. Most parents and even general citizens think the schools have not made enough progress - even though the schools are dealing with a diverse crowd of students. Most drivers are grumpy that their transportation system in the state is increasingly disfunctional - money has been diverted for several years and yet here we have thousands of state engineers. Finally, most observers - whatever their stripe are skeptical that we've got the brightest and the best representing us - although indeed the legislature is in reality often a reflection of the society we live in.

In the end a lot of these issues will come down to who do you trust. And in that category the interests, no matter how special, will have a hard time appealing to the average voter. The Governor moved voters in a short time on a couple of issues in the last election - and there is little indication that he has lost his touch in this area.

Ultimately, this set of issues is about how resources are allocated. The state process for making choices is ponderous and often ignores alternatives that are common in other places - mandated staffing ratios or assuring a standard of care, defined benefit or defined contribution plans, figuring out a logical way to measure performance in schools and even establishing a procedure for choosing our representatives where those directly affected do not have a role in determining who will be elected - are all examples of resource allocation - in essence of the state's political capital. And in each the public perception and the political establishment's perception may be substantially different.

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