Among the chattering classes in Sacramento, the talk is all about the arcane subject of prison realignment. In 2011, the state Legislature rushed to embrace Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to move felons from state prisons to county jails.
Turns out there were complications. What a surprise.
We may need to revisit that decision, Brown said last week. In a private meeting, the Sacramento Bee reported, Brown blamed county governments for the problems caused by realignment. If you want to understand state government, you can begin with this: There's always someone else to blame.
In fits and starts, local governments in Sonoma County and elsewhere are trying to make sense of the unhappy but inexorable change in their fortunes.
Combine an economic recession, a changed economy, years of over-spending and public cynicism, and the outcome isn't difficult to predict: Government here and throughout California is contracting, and all the wishful thinking in the world will not change that.
What's needed, of course, is a broad-based conversation about how we can do the best we can with what we have. In a changed world, what can we afford? What's essential, and what isn't? This is what individuals do. Why not government?
Unfortunately, there is little enthusiasm for this conversation.
Except for moments of indignation that come too late to influence decision making, the electorate is indifferent. Just say the words — government reform — and people begin to nod off.
Meanwhile, the special interests most involved with government often want to pretend this conversation isn't necessary. Which means the officials those special interests helped to elect aren't eager to talk about change either.
What we know for sure is that, rational or random, state and local government will be required to make hard choices.
In a sense, the recent prison realignment represented a first stab at re-inventing government — albeit a decision made with too little discussion of the collateral damage. (In September, analysts for the Public Policy Institute of California warned, "California's county jails faced serious capacity constraints even before realignment began ...")
Rule of thumb: In good times, state government tells local governments how to conduct their business. In tough times, state government says, hey, school districts, cities and counties, it's your problem now.
In incremental and piecemeal ways, this conversation about reinventing government is occurring.
When the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week agreed to reduce pay and pension packages for a shrinking county workforce, it was acknowledging a new economic reality.
When local agencies and nonprofits assumed responsibilities for state parks in danger of closing, they were acknowledging that old expectations no longer apply.
When the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors decided to replace toll takers with electronic machines — beginning Wednesday — it was conceding the old ways of doing business are no longer affordable.
When state court officials proposed charging citizens $10 to view a public document, they were testifying to their desperation. (Whether they understand the meaning of open government is a separate question.)
When the Healdsburg City Council last week decided not to let a state fire agency assume responsibility for fire protection in the city, the council was deciding that this particular budget reform proposal didn't make sense for Healdsburg.
Councilman Jim Wood told Staff Writer Clark Mason that the thought of giving a state agency control of fire services in the city was "disconcerting."