After months of bickering and an epic, weeks-long stalemate, the California Legislature finally adopted a budget in February.
But, although little publicized at the time, state lawmakers left a significant part of the job to us. On May 19, we voters will decide on a battery of six propositions aimed at closing a budget gap that last winter weighed in at $6 billion and has since swelled to $14 billion.
So even if Propositions 1A through 1F pass, they’ll do less than half the job. Lawmakers would still have to work up the political courage to close a remaining gap of $8 billion or more. Given their history, this will be a tall, if not impossible, order.
Not only are the May propositions inadequate, they are disingenuous as well. All but one — 1F, which would ban pay increases for elected officials when the state budget shows a deficit — deserve rejection.
With the exception of a long-needed rainy day fund, nothing in the first five propositions offers long-term solutions to the state’s continuing fiscal crisis. In fact, the legislative analyst predicts that after two or three years many of these measures will result in higher costs.
This is nothing new: An overview of the state budget in the special election voter pamphlet attributes part of our present problems to “use of one-time solutions to support higher ongoing spending.”
Approving more one-time solutions, like those on this month’s ballot, would make voters part of the problem. In psychological terms, we would become enablers and facilitators.
Instead it’s time to let Sacramento know that we will no longer tolerate fiscal irresponsibility. It’s time to vote No in Propositions 1A through 1E.
A brief look at each measure:
Proposition 1A, the cornerstone of the package, talks nobly of establishing a beefier “rainy-day fund” for economic hard times. It is a worthy and long overdue goal. But behind this dangling carrot is language extending recent sales tax, vehicle license fee and income tax hikes for as far into the future as 2013.
Proposition 1B would defer payments due to public schools and colleges under Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988, until 2011-12. This could save the state billions in the near term, but in the long term costs would increase.
Proposition 1C makes the California Lottery — created by voters in 1984 for the express purpose of increasing education funding (“Our schools win, too”) — a key cash cow in this plan. The measure would loosen up lottery rules, jack up payouts and eliminate the requirement that proceeds go only to education (the general fund would make those payments). Not only that, but it would allow borrowing against lottery income in years to come by selling “futures” to investors and paying them back with interest when the presumed revenues come rolling in.
But as more “futures” mature, state interest costs would mount.
Had this all been spelled out back in ‘84 (How does “Our free-spending politicians win, too” sound?), the lottery proposition would have been rejected soundly.
Proposition 1D is another revenue shift, taking $268 million in annual early childhood development funds authorized by voters in 1998 and redirecting them to help balance the state budget. Had voters been asked 11 years ago if it was OK to use a huge chunk of the cash raised for the California Children and Families Program to make up for the irresponsible spending excesses of the Legislature, what do you think the verdict would have been?
Proposition 1E targets mental health funding approved by voters in 2004, siphoning off $230 million annually for two years. Mental health programs will suffer, but their clients are a small constituency statewide and perhaps fund switch was seen as politically expedient. But instead it is a scheme to help balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it.
Proposition 1F alone deserves a yes vote. It would ban pay raises for elected officials during deficit years. We would have preferred salary cuts, but a 1972 measure prohibits reduction of state officials’ pay during their terms of office. This proposition will have a negligible financial effect, but it does send an unequivocal message — although not as unequivocal as unseating a few entrenched incumbents might be.
Rejection of 1A through 1E could bring California short-term economic pain. But if it in the long run leads to more responsible budgeting and to a bipartisan spirit of cooperation among our elected leaders, it will be well worth it.