Dan Walters: Jerry Brown's new big word -- subsidiarity

dwalters@sacbee.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Dan Walters

Former Catholic seminarian Jerry Brown is prone to including obscure theological references in his political pronouncements, often embellishing them with Latin phrases.

So last week, when presenting a new state budget proposal, he used the word "subsidiarity" to describe his intention to continue shifting responsibilities for policymaking from Sacramento to locally elected officials.

One had to be steeped in Catholic doctrinal history to grasp that it evolves from the work of an influential 20th-century German theologian, Oswald von Nell- Breuning.

He postulated that the fundamental autonomy of the individual meant that governments should leave as much decision-making as possible in private hands. It was one of the underpinnings of the Catholic Church's opposition to fascism, communism and other statist forms.

Applying it, as Brown did, to the relationship between California's state and local governments is, therefore, a bit of a stretch, albeit another opportunity for Brown to flash his theological erudition to the unwashed media.

Such nitpicking aside, there's much to be said for diminishing the power that Sacramento assumed, somewhat unintentionally, after voters passed Proposition 13, the landmark property tax limit, 35 years ago, during Brown's first stint as governor.

As it shouldered the burden for schools, community colleges, the courts and other functions that had been locally financed and managed, the state also dictated how the money would be spent, even though operations remained, in large measure, in local hands.

Financing formulas became increasingly complex and irrational as local governments and program stakeholders jousted in the Capitol.

Centralization gave Sacramento politicians more clout over local affairs and local politicians a built-in excuse for failure – while neither bore any accountability to voters for outcomes.

Brown's initial foray into subsidiarity was what he and others called "realignment" – shifting responsibility for incarcerating and supervising low-level felons and some social service programs to counties, along with a $5 billion-plus revenue stream to pay for them.

His latest proposal deals with K-12 education, eliminating many of the "categorical aids" that dictate how state money is to be spent, and recasting that money, as well as new funds, into block grants, albeit with a proviso giving more funds to schools with large numbers of poor and/or non- English-speaking students.

It's good in theory, and Brown deserves credit for pursuing it, no matter what fancy phrase he uses. But other Sacramento politicians and interest groups will be reluctant to cede power, local officials may not truly want the accountability – and it might take a constitutional amendment to make it real.

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