California’s budget problems have to do with the state’s political history going back a century to a progressive movement that instituted the initiative process. That process, in turn, has bound the budgetary hands in Sacramento…
I covered the aftermath of California’s special election today for the newscasts on NPR (National Public Radio).
All five measures that would have partially addressed the state’s massive budget shortfall were voted down by a margin of almost 2 to 1. That’s a huge margin in elections. The only ballot measure that passed capped pay for elected officials during years that the budget is in deficit. I can’t imagine a clearer signal of voter anger that doesn’t include voting everyone out of office.
After wading through the complex ballot measures and budgetary problems, I better understood why voters so angrily voted down anything having to do with the budget crisis.
In short, it seemed as if everything we’d been hearing before the election – we’ve heard before. California’s coffers have gone through rough periods time and time again. Every time the economy declines, state funds plummet – apparently much more so than in other states.
Of course, with the country’s economy in a severe recession and job losses adding up at a staggering pace (a month’s job losses today equal a year’s job losses during a normal period of economic decline), the budget crisis this time is particularly severe.
The reason why California’s budget is so precarious is often explained as something like this: California’s budget problems have to do with the state’s political history going back a century to a progressive movement that instituted the initiative process. That process, in turn, has bound the budgetary hands in Sacramento through initiative after initiative, and a massive property tax law revolt known as Proposition 13. All this has left lawmakers with little wiggle room in terms of how state money is spent, on what it’s spent, and how much. And the state is left too dependent on fickle income tax revenue, which has reportedly plummeted to levels not seen since the 1930s (I couldn’t confirm this from a second source for my reporting today, and so I didn’t include it in my story.)
So with the budget problems seemingly nothing knew, it seemed to me that proponents of the budget ballot initiatives had a credibility gap – including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had campaigned to fix California’s budget and tax problems, and has not been able to fulfill that pledge.
Voters have heard gloom and doom scenarios many times before. So why should they approve yet more borrowing of money, and an extension of tax hikes during tough economic times?
At the same time, the state has been borrowing heavily to limit the severity of budget cuts. Just months ago, lawmakers had to close a more than $40 billion deficit.
So there’s multiple ways to analyze the failure of the budget initiatives: voters were angry and didn’t believe politicians knew what they were doing, they rejected higher taxes, they rejected cuts in spending, they didn’t fully understand the issues at hand, they hadn’t quite yet felt the pain of the budget problems (by way of major cutbacks) so they didn’t understand the urgency of passing the ballot measures proposed.
But I also wonder if there may be another way of looking at what happened on election day. Perhaps at least some of the voters looked at the proposed solutions, the scope of the budget problem, and scratched their heads. Afterall, how can $6 billion raised by ballot initiative help alleviate a $20 billion deficit? And, at that, the initiatives would have raised that money at a heavy expense – not just tax increases, but cuts in social services for kids and new borrowing against future lottery proceeds (which theoretically could affect education funding, if lottery money was actually used to pay back the loan).
Perhaps voters simply decided that the solutions proposed were too little to solve the problem and took the wrong approach.
This is all speculation on my part. But it does lead to a broader point. There were few clear-cut decisions on the California ballot. And it may not be that surprising that in the absence of clearer, more concrete solutions, voters chose the status quo.