More money, same problems: My fellow California Democrats keep repeating this mistake

The California Legislature is poised to begin its summer recess having passed the latest state budget. The $310-billion plan is a reflection of our values, dedicating spending to getting homeless people off the street, supporting schools, keeping public transit afloat and treating mental illness. As a member of the state Senate’s Democratic majority, I voted for all of those things.

But as many Californians know, we’ve already spent billions of dollars on the same problems — with very little to show for it.

Our failures are evidence that good intentions and lots of money are not enough to fix what ails the Golden State. To make our progressive beliefs mean anything, the Legislature must ensure that the money we spend is actually improving the lives of the people we say we are committed to helping.

We can do that with two major changes in the way we work. First, we need to stop hamstringing programs and services with special interest demands that doom them to fail. Second, we need to gather and evaluate data on how our programs are working, and that includes supporting independent watchdogs to tell us when government is wasting our money and failing to get the job done.

Consider our much-discussed commitment to affordable housing. Five years ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee killed a proposal to make it harder to use the courts to slow and ultimately block new affordable housing. Not a single Democrat voted for the bill. A year later, a similar bill cleared the Senate but was killed in the Assembly.

Finally, in 2021, the idea won overwhelming Democratic support. What changed? The bill was amended to require that affordable projects use only “skilled and trained” labor — code for union workers — even though state law already required such projects to pay union-level wages. The provision will make it that much more expensive and difficult to build housing, putting the interests of construction unions ahead of the needs of low-income people who can’t afford a place to live.

Efforts to help homeless Californians have been similarly stymied. Proposals to require treatment for mentally ill individuals who are living on the street and too sick to care for themselves have repeatedly been blocked by civil rights groups arguing that people essentially have a right to live homeless and untreated.

Or consider the public schools. Democrats know that hundreds of our schools are failing and far too many kids are unable to read, write or do math at grade level. And we know that those struggling students are disproportionately low-income children of color. But that issue gets almost no attention from Democrats in the Capitol, who have made no recent efforts to discover why schools are falling short and what can be done to improve them.

Legislation to hold bureaucracies more accountable is also a tough sell in Sacramento. The Legislature wants to bail out the Bay Area Rapid Transit system by increasing bridge tolls. But for the past two years, Democrats have blocked a proposal to give BART’s inspector general the independence to hold the system accountable for how it spends the money it has.

And while we spend more than $6 billion a year on mental health services, the state has very little information about which programs are working and which are not. Yet the Newsom administration has quietly opposed legislation to collect data and measure results. Bills to do so were introduced in 2021 and 2022 but failed to advance.

There are glimmers of hope for more effective approaches. Bills by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), for example, would promote affordable housing without caving to the unions, and they appear to have a good chance of passing. Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) is again pushing legislation that would allow real intervention to help people with mental illness and addiction get off the street, and it might actually pass this time.

Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee approved independent performance audits of the state’s long-troubled wage theft enforcement program as well as our woeful performance on homelessness. We can only hope those investigations lead to meaningful change.

But that’s just a start. We need a lot more principled leadership if California’s progressives are serious about creating a government and a society that are a compassionate and sustainable national model — and not a cautionary tale of failed hopes and promises.

Steve Glazer is a Democratic state senator representing the Bay Area’s 7th Senate District, which includes most of Contra Costa County and part of Alameda County.


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