California Voters: Choose Your Pain May 19

Remember when, on some rare occasion, the correct answer to a test question in school was “all of the above”? I happen to believe that much of life outside the confines of a classroom is like that. Each of us perceives an aspect of a given political or social problem on which we base a set of mostly valid observations. What we have less time and patience for are the dots we have yet to connect.

Take California’s special election.

Are powerful interest groups to blame for California’s fiscal pickle? Yes. Are union demands responsible too? Likely. Are state lawmakers responsible for failing to reign in deficit spending, their own salaries among them? Undoubtedly. Are the ballot initiatives proposed as a solution to California’s economic woes anywhere close to ideal? Certainly not! Are there legitimate reasons the state is in the red, among them the foreclosure crisis, which has diminished property tax revenues in the Golden State more so than most? Absolutely.

There is a side to this election that has seen comparatively little discussion: Paying the Piper. Some would argue that the notion of settling the books died when old school conservatism began morph into that of the much-beloved former state governor and President Ronald Reagan — a champion of less government and fewer taxes but a less-than-traditional view on deficit spending. If this recession is evidence of anything at all, however, it is the fallacy that the economy will outpace our ability to overextend ourselves. Ask a banker. Ask state lawmakers. Ask a homeowner following a job loss or foreclosure. And next time the opportunity to vote on a great new spending program comes along, ask yourself.

Almost without fail, analysis of any given ballot proposal or bond measure indicates that the ultimate fiscal consequences are “unknown”. Take the so-called three strikes law. Few oppose the idea of keeping violent criminals off the streets. Of course, there are the assorted controversies about locking felons up and throwing away the key when the offenses are of a nonviolent variety. Put all that aside for the moment, though. The California state prison system is in receivership. Why? Because the prisons are so overcrowded, among many other ills fiscal and otherwise, that the state’s ability to maintain such high incarceration rates appears unsustainable. It could be argued that these are exactly the sort of circumstances that create jobs — for prison guards and new prison construction projects, that is — but taxpayers, predictably, are not eager to foot the bill. Consequently, one of the things Gov. Schwarzenegger has threatened to do if the special election fails to yield the desired results is to let out nearly 40,000 prisoners before their sentences are complete.

Now in all fairness, there is plenty of blame to go around. Consider how many bond obligations and propositions California voters have passed over the years. Stem cell research funds. Bills of rights for this group or that. Taxpayer funds that voters allocate to programs politicians are forbidden to touch even in times like these. Ever wonder if part of the reason the state is running a severe deficit might have something to do with the fact that the electorate agreed to spend too much money — in some cases duplicating programs and services already created in some form or fashion via a prior election? Or that lawmakers who seem incapable of cutting the pork out of state budget are in power because voters placed them there?

Californians have an opportunity Tuesday to vote down the offending propositions in the hope the insanity goes away. Will it?

I doubt it.

California’s budget shortfall is so severe in the face of this recession that merely cutting spending or borrowing more money is unlikely to solve the state’s fiscal problems. Simultaneously cutting services and raising taxes is the bitter pill residents are likely swallow whether the ballot initiative pass or not. The real question is whether Californians want to feel the pain in the manner proposed by the propositions vs. the unpredictable and erratic cuts that shall result in the event voters reject them.

So what’s a conscientious citizen to do?

Golden State residents by all means ought turn out at the polls and urge others to do the same. Above all, an informed vote is a necessity. Study the voter information guide closely and read the pros and cons discussed in newspaper articles. Don’t rely exclusively on secondhand opinions from friends and family, televised advertisements or broadcast news segments. Informing a vote in this manner may be tempting and quick but it fails to scratch the surface in a way an important election deserves — this or any other election.

The world’s fifth largest economy depends on California voters’ wisdom at the polls. Clinging to traditional partisanship is the easy part; sober-minded pragmatism a far more challenging step toward economic recovery.

###

References

California Statewide Special Election Official Voter Information Guide

Synopsis:

• Proposition 1A: CHANGES CALIFORNIA BUDGET PROCESS. LIMITS STATE SPENDING. INCREASES “RAINY DAY” BUDGET STABILIZATION FUND.
• Proposition 1B: EDUCATION FUNDING. PAYMENT PLAN.
• Proposition 1C: LOTTERY MODERNIZATION ACT.
• Proposition 1D: PROTECTS CHILDREN’S SERVICES FUNDING. HELPS BALANCE STATE BUDGET.
• Proposition 1E: MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FUNDING. TEMPORARY REALLOCATION. HELPS BALANCE STATE BUDGET.
• Proposition 1F: ELECTED OFFICIALS’ SALARIES. PREVENTS PAY INCREASES DURING BUDGET DEFICIT YEARS.

Lawmakers are toxic, but voters helped get themselves into this fix, LA Times, May 18, 2009

Synopsis: Over the years California voters have sidelined money politicians can’t touch for everything from stem cell research to redundant/overlapping taxpayer-funded programs created in some form or fashion by a prior election. These funds cannot be redirected, even temporarily, without voter approval. The special election has been called in order to decide whether a specific set of funds should be reallocated to reduce the deficit. The original budget that was passed last year after a protracted legislative fight is no longer sufficient, lawmakers claim, partly because the state has lost too much property tax revenue as a consequence of the foreclosure crisis, among other recession impacts.

Schwarzenegger outlines drastic budget cuts, LA Times, May 15, 2009

Synopsis: If the initiatives do not pass Gov. Schwarzenegger claims the situation will become even uglier: Nearly 40,000 prisoners will be released from jail before their terms are up; $5 billion in cuts will be made to education vs. $3 billion proposed by the props; a property tax surcharge will go into effect; the state will borrow city government funds; historic landmarks will be put up for auction; state parks will increase fees, etc. Sacramento politicians may not agree on how to put the state’s fiscal house in order, but they unanimously agree that the situation is dire.

Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, leading the opposition

Synopsis: Voters are free to reject Proposition 1A and its additional $16 billion in new taxes without inflicting harm on the state’s current fiscal health. The only ballot measures that impact the current budget are 1C, 1D, and 1E. Combined, these propositions would mortgage the state lottery and shift money from segregated accounts for mental health and early childhood development to bolster the general fund.

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