Let the people tell the governor the state of the state

January 12, 2014 

This month, I’m hoping we’ll see the last of a tedious tradition: the annual state of the state speech.

Every January, California governors deliver this address to the California legislature, and the tiny slice of the California population that closely follows state politics tunes in. It’s a political opportunity for the governor to make a case for his agenda. It’s also a waste of time.

State of the state speeches invariably end up defining the state of California by its government. But California state government is famously inflexible, out-of-date, stodgy and mostly based in the north, while the state of California, as a culture and series of economies, is diverse, flexible, dynamic, fast-changing and tilted to the south.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown started his speech with the declaration that “California did the impossible” by balancing its state budget. (Since almost every other U.S. state balances its budget each year, Brown’s bar for “impossible” is rather low.) But the state budget isn’t all that important; it is less than 10 percent of the annual GDP of California, and three-quarters of the state budget is essentially money for California’s thousands of local governments.

Those places have needs and interests that are profoundly different from those of the state as a whole.

The Central Valley has more in common with swaths of the Midwest and the South than it does with L.A. And the Bay Area has more in common with the economies of Seoul and Boston than it does with Riverside.

Laying out policy priorities as if they apply to all of California is folly. Most of California would like to see gas prices that are low, but not oil-producing Kern County, which likes them high. The Bay Area’s economy is surging; the Inland Empire’s has unemployment levels similar to Detroit’s. In San Diego, nearly half the population is college-educated; in the San Joaquin Valley, it’s less than a fifth.

To recognize these mixed realities, Gov. Brown should start by ditching this year’s speech, scheduled for Jan. 22. Traditionalists will howl and point out that the state constitution requires the governor to “report to the Legislature.” But a report doesn’t have to be a speech, and there are smarter ways to paint a picture of the state.

Here’s one. Once a month, the governor – along with state legislators and leading regional and local officials –should host a weekend town hall in one of the regions outlined in the 12-region state map drawn up by the tourism industry – so it works out to one regional town hall each month. (That might sound like a lot of weekend work for state officials, but they have recesses far longer than any vacation you or I could possibly imagine).

These would include question-and-answer sessions as well as informal gatherings in parks and arenas that are open to the public, so that every Californian could get a chance to talk to their officials. The state would provide refreshments and childcare for parents who want to attend.

Such gatherings might seem simple, but in a state so sprawling and disconnected, just putting state leaders, citizens, and regional officials together in the same room has huge potential to spark the new relationships necessary to solve problems. The sessions could be summed up in 12 regional reports and thrown into one document – call that the State of the State. It might be big and unwieldly, but it would come closer to capturing California than the address the governor will give later this month.

And Californians would no longer be able to complain about remote and unresponsive state government; the state government, at least once a year, would come to you.

Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.

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