Arnold’s big hoax

Pub date April 28, 2009

The choice facing California voters May 19 is, to put it mildly, unpleasant. The budget deal hammered out by the governor and legislative leaders — which these six ballot measures will confirm and implement — at least kept the state solvent and prevented a financial catastrophe. But the solution is just terrible, and will lock the state into a budgetary nightmare for years to come.

State Sen. Mark Leno, who supports the deal, makes no attempt to soft-peddle what went on here. It was, he told us, the result of "extortion." Because California has an arcane and counterproductive rule mandating that any state budget and any tax increases must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature, and because Republicans control just enough votes to block any budget, and because those Republicans have all signed a written promise never to raise taxes under any circumstances, and because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t get the GOP to go along with his compromises and is unwilling to accept Democratic proposals that might escape the onerous supermajority, budget stalemate in tough times is almost guaranteed. And in this case, because the state was running out of cash and hundreds of thousands of people were about to be put out of work as state-funded projects shut down, the Democrats were forced to accept a compromise none of them like.

A small number of Republicans insisted on vast changes in the way California does business — and because the Democrats saw no other options, the GOP faction got much of what it wanted. The result: the Democratic Party leadership is campaigning for a series of measures that reflect, to a significant extent, a Republican view of how the state should be run.

The opposition to the package comes from the far right (which is upset because the budget deal includes some new taxes, albeit regressive ones) and, increasingly, progressives, who argue that the measures will make it harder for the state to meet the needs of a growing (and aging) population.

We’ve listened to both sides, researched the measures in depth, and concluded that the best choice for Californians is to reject Propositions 1A through 1F. The proposal may address (most of) this year’s budget woes and keep the state running for a while, but it will create a fiscal straightjacket on the order of Proposition 13 that will damage California and undermine any progressive policy hopes for many, many years into the future. If the voters accept this deal today, they’ll come to regret it.

Proposition 1A doesn’t quite reach the Republican holy grail — a cap on annual government spending — but it goes a long way in that direction. The measure would require the state to make annual contributions to a budget reserve fund until the reserve reaches 12.5 percent of general fund revenue. The state would have to set aside reserve money every year, even in very bad years. If next year’s budget deficit is as bad as this one, Prop. 1A would make it worse. It restricts the use of "unanticipated revenues" — meaning the state can’t spend money it might have in very good years. There’s a really complicated formula for when the state can dip into the reserve, and how it can be used, but the California Budget Project, the respected policy watchdog group, points out that the measure amounts to a cap in spending, one that won’t keep pace with California’s needs.

"Prop. 1A would not address California’s existing structural shortfall — the gap between revenues and expenditures — that exists in all but the best budget years," CBP notes. "By basing the new cap on a level of revenues that is insufficient to pay for the current level of programs and services, Prop. 1A would limit the state’s ability to restore reductions made during the current downturn out of existing revenues."

The guidelines for future spending don’t take into account the increased demand for public services California will face in the next few years. The population will increase by 29.4 percent over the 2000 level by 2020, state officials project, but the number of people 65 and older will increase by 75 percent. That will put a huge new demand on state services — and if Prop. 1A passes, the budget won’t be able to expand to meet those needs.

The budget compromise included some temporary tax increases. The sales tax is slated to go up by one cent on the dollar, the vehicle license fee will rise slightly, and there’s an across-the-board increase in income taxes. Sales taxes are the most regressive way to raise revenue, and the income tax hikes hit the rich and the middle class evenly — hardly a fair or progressive plan.

But that money is needed to close the horrendous budget gap, and the propositions are designed to make it hard for progressives to say no. If Prop. 1A and Prop. 1B go down, the taxes expire after two years. If those measures pass, the taxes continue until 2012.

Prop. 1B is part of a deal that the governor cut with the California Teachers Association, the largest union of educators in the state. It shifts some more money to the public schools to make up for what was cut this year and last. It’s a complicated formula, but in effect it probably does nothing more than what Prop. 98 — the state’s mandate to fund education — already requires. The problem is that the governor and the school districts disagree on what Prop. 98 says, and without 1B, it’s unlikely that money will be forthcoming. The money California’s public schools get under 1B is still woefully inadequate; and again, this does nothing to address the structural problems.

Prop. 1C allows the state to borrow $5 billion from future lottery revenues to help balance the current budget. Of course, that money won’t be available in future years — unless, as 1C suggests, the lottery can find ways to sell more tickets. The idea here: increase lottery revenue through better marketing, thus taking more money from poor people (the lottery is an overwhelmingly regressive source of income).

Prop 1D’s title, "Protects children’s services funding," is a complete lie. Instead it redirects money earmarked for early childhood programs into the general fund, essentially de-funding some of the most effective and inexpensive programs California offers. Prop. 1E is a similar deal — it temporarily suspends the program that funds mental health services with a tax on the very rich, and puts that money into the general fund instead.

Prop. F is just stupid — it prevents lawmakers and the governor from receiving pay increases when there’s a budget deficit. That’s not going to change anything in Sacramento.

We’re acutely aware of the risks inherent in voting down this intricately orchestrated budget compromise. In effect, the Legislature, which has been paralyzed by the two-thirds rule, will have to go back and try again. The governor, who is ineffective at best and a severe roadblock at worst, will be little help. And the anti-tax forces will claim that the voters have vindicated their position.

But let’s look at reality. The tax increases will be in effect for the next two years anyway. The state’s budget position has worsened in the past month, so the Legislature will have to figure out how to deal with an $8 billion additional shortfall no matter what happens.

And in the fall of 2010, state voters will almost certainly have a chance to repeal the two-thirds budget rule — and have a good chance to elect a Democratic governor.

California needs major, structural budget reform. If we thought this were just a temporary painful deal that would postpone the worst of the state’s problems until Schwarzenegger and the GOP obstructionists were gone, we’d be tempted to support the package. But these measures lock the state into an unacceptable budget situation forever.

Vote no on 1A–1F.