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California not so golden: Rotary speaker laments state of the state

Photo By: Jerry Tomanek/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Jerry Tomanek/Special To The Town Crier

Professor Larry Gerston offers solutions for fixing California’s “mess” during a recent Rotary Club presentation.

California is a mess, according to Larry Gerston, Ph.D., a political science professor at San Jose State University who frequently appears as a commentator on the NBC Nightly News, CNN and the BBC.

Gerston discussed why the Golden State is not so golden for a Rotary Club of Los Altos audience Feb. 21.


Unfortunately, Gerston warned, no single election or policy can solve the myriad problems in California’s “botched jigsaw puzzle, where all the parts are there, but they don’t fit together.” He outlined the state’s three overarching challenges: legislators don’t know how to get along and don’t like each other, the state doesn’t invest wisely and the state has a political system that protects the status quo.

The first challenge to overcome is that legislators represent the far left and the far right, with few in between. He named the constituencies the “haves” and the “have-nots” – the white and nonwhite demography – noting the general opposition to newcomers, who are now becoming the majority.

Second, Gerston alerted the audience to the “disaster” of poor investment in K-12 public schools, while the economically able choose to educate their children in the few high-functioning public school districts or at private schools.

According to the professor, California ranks at the bottom among states in per capita public school funding, class size and number of days in the school year. With the current 25 percent dropout rate, California’s youth are not receiving the proper education for jobs paying more than minimum wage. The dropout rate reaches as high as 80 percent in areas near Fresno and Bakersfield, he added.

Addressing the third challenge, Gerston bemoaned the state’s broken political system: term limits result in arbitrarily throwing out the good with the bad; the initiative system typifies California’s “out-of-control direct democracy,” as initiatives are difficult to understand and have become a tool of special interests; and reliance on personal income tax for 62 percent of the general fund creates a “roller-coaster economy.”

Gerston lamented that state law mandates an absolute-majority – two-thirds – approval from legislators to raise taxes, the most stringent requirement of all U.S. state legislatures. He also criticized the designated funding system, which leaves little flexibility in use of the state’s resources, resulting in little left for higher education.

Unnecessary waste also occurs in overlapping local governments, he said, with duplicated services in school districts and police and fire departments. For example, 34 school districts in Santa Clara County pay high wages for 34 school superintendants. Gerston proposed that adjoining districts merge to save on administrative overhead and the county’s 12 police departments and 11 fire departments join forces.

Gerston also pointed to an “unnecessary” bicameral legislature, suggesting that the Senate and Assembly should be combined, and the comptroller, treasurer and Board of Equalization merged into one financial entity.

Problem solving

Gerston recommended recalibrating spending to fix the challenges the state confronts. He proposed reforming Proposition 13 to redistribute property taxes and increasing “sin taxes” on wine and beer.

His first step would be to begin taxing industries that are not currently taxed – California is the only major oil-producing state that does not tax oil out of the ground. He would then bring California’s education system up to speed by funding a longer school year, abolishing term limits and duplicated offices and administration, and holding state and local elections on the same dates. He recommended earmarking more money for community colleges and making learning a second language mandatory.

Gerston recalled the 1950s and ’60s, when California had the country’s best public education and transportation network.

“To make California competitive again,” he concluded, “we need to make changes – now.”

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