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But what did we say?

| California had another of its seemingly unending special elections on Tuesday to vote on a slate of six ballot propositions that were supposed to fix the budget crisis due to a $21.3 billion shortfall. Five of them were defeated by huge margins in the neighborhood of 65% to 35%. Proposition 1F, to limit officials' salaries when there is a budget deficit, won by an overwhelming landslide, 75% to 25%.

results

Propositions

 

Since the election, everyone claims to have heard the message "loud and clear" but I think most of them are confused about what the message is.

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No to taxes. This is a popular interpretation.

"Voters will not raise state taxes," said the editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.

A Republican strategist (now there's an oxymoron!) said taxes were "the spark" and "the match" behind the voter explosion of "No."

No to spending. Others heard a message endorsing deep cuts in spending.

"The reason these measures went down is that people have less money, they're hurting and they expect us to do what they're doing. And that is to do the best we can with what we have," explained Darrell Steinberg, leader of the Democratic Senate.

"The message was clear from the people, go all out and make those cuts and live within your means," said Governor Schwarzenegger. Before the election Arnold warned of wholesale slashing if the propositions didn't pass.

No to politicians. Newt Gingrich said it was all about being "fed up with corrupt politicians, arrogant bureaucrats, greedy interests and incompetent, destructive government." Newt claimed that the "union-lobbyist-bureaucrat machine" is "running California into the ground, crippling its economy and cheating residents," and the vote was a "call for lower taxes and less spending."

It is true that people have a pretty low opinion of officials' work. A recent Field poll found that only 32% of voters approve of the job Arnold is doing, and only 14% approve of the Legislature's job performance. (That's even worse than Dick Cheney's approval rating!)

It's not my job! "The big message was that voters believe the budget is the Legislature's and governor's domain completely," said a strategist for Props 1A and 1B. "They don't want to be responsible for voting on any part of it. They want Sacramento to do it, to get it done and get it behind them."

This view makes a lot of sense to me. When I scanned the election booklet my first reaction was, "Oh, no, not another election," and my second reaction was "How the hell am I supposed to know?" The budget is a whole, and when you make decisions on individual parts of it, the math often doesn't work out. The reason we elect these guys is to study the options and make decisions, not throw up their hands and say "You do it."

An irony of this election is that the proponents of the propositions raised and spent 10 times as much money as those against the props. All that advertising was completely rejected; a rather poor return on investment, I'd say.

The bigger picture

There's a larger point that I think many are missing: California is simply ungovernable. The proliferation of ballot propositions mandating specific spending leaves very little wiggle room in crafting a budget. When hard times come along, it's simply impossible to make sensible budget trade-offs because they are precluded by previous propositions. On top of that, California requires budgets be passed by a supermajority. Given that the legislature is comprised of representatives from highly gerrymandered districts, influenced by powerful outside interests, gridlock is the inevitable outcome.

We need to make it much, much harder to put a proposition on the ballot. That would be a big first step. Then we need to get rid of the supermajority requirements.

But above all, we need to get real: people want services from their government and the reality is that services have to be paid for. The Republican mantra about lower taxes and smaller government is wishful thinking.

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018

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