Monday, April 13, 2009

May 2009 California Proposition Recommendations

Looking for June 2010 proposition recommendations? Click

UPDATE: results added below in purple.

After months of legislative stalemate over the budget, they dumped these six hastily drafted, over-complicated initiatives in our laps. Go into the voting booth assured that whatever decisions we collectively make will destroy people’s lives. Can we just go back to voting on gay marriage and whether to ban horse meat?

Prop. 1A. I’m conflicted on the whole concept of a rainy day fund. On the one hand, it’s kind of like a progressive tax system for the economy as a whole, taxing good years to make up for shortfalls when the tax base contracts in bad years. But on the other hand, it seriously weakens the link between taxation and representation. It doesn’t seem entirely democratic to be collecting taxes (12.5% of the budget) for purposes that have yet to be determined. Either way, right now the idea is irrelevant: these are the rainy days, and they’re likely to continue for a while, and when the economy recovers we’ll have to spend a few years attending to all the, um, water damage from our current budget cuts. Maybe the rainy day fund idea should be considered in a decade or so.

Next, taxes. 1A would keep the recent sales and income tax increases until 2012 or 2013 instead of having them expire in 2011. It is definitely necessary to raise some taxes to maintain services, but it is especially vital in bad times that taxes fall most heavily on those who can best afford to pay them – no regressive taxes. California already gets too much of its revenue from a sales tax that is too high. And even the income tax increase in 1A is a flat tax, adding .25% to the existing rates in each tax bracket.

There’s also a lot of stuff in 1A about when money can be transferred from one fund to another, all way too complicated for me to figure out how it would be play out in practice. Which is a good reason not to carve it into stone. And the governor is given way too much discretion over spending, letting him cut, without any reference to the Legislature, all sorts of outlays, including cost-of-living increases for the lame and the halt (but not for state employees, because guess who wrote this thing).

What 1A comes down to is an attempt to create a lot of rules restricting what our elected representatives can do in setting budgets, without addressing the real reason the budgetary process is broken: the ridiculous requirement that 2/3 of the Legislature vote for a budget. I’m just not willing to consider any prop affecting budget-making that leaves intact the ability of a small minority to obstruct the workings of the state. No on 1A.
Result: No, 65.9%.

Prop. 1B. To pay back – eventually – money the Legislature recently diverted from education (K-12 + community colleges). Yes.
Result: No, 62.6%.

Prop. 1C. You gotta love the title of this one: “Lottery Modernization Act.” Taking money from the innumerate the modern way, who wouldn’t be in favor of that? Basically, diverting $5 billion in lottery revenue 1) from education into the general fund, and 2) from future years (to be repaid with interest) to the current budget, and making changes to the lottery that would, they hope, bring in lots more revenue in the future (but which would probably fail to bring in enough to repay the $5 billion).

When we first voted to create a lottery, I abstained, figuring that while I had no interest in playing it (and I never have), the people who might want to were adults and could decide for themselves. Then it was implemented, and I saw that with the lottery came advertising, that the state of California was actively enticing credulous people to gamble away their money. To make the Prop 1C Ponzi scheme function, they’d have to work very hard indeed at luring us into throwing away a great deal more than the measly $83 per year that the average Californian evidently currently spends on lottery tickets. I don’t wish to see that happen in my name. No on 1C.
Result: No, 64.6%

Prop. 1D. would steal money from various early-childhood programs to fund various other early-childhood programs in order to make the budget numbers look better. Short of examining the effectiveness of each one of those programs, there is no way to tell what the impact on children would be, but 1D would move spending decisions from local commissions to the state, and something tells me that the state government is less to be trusted these days. No on 1D.
Result: No, 65.8%

Prop. 1E would steal money from various mental health programs to fund various other mental health programs to make the budget numbers look better. It could also imperil some federal matching funds. No on 1E.
Result: No, 66.4%. The highest no vote.

Prop. 1F. No pay increases for elected officials in years when the state is in deficit. Look, the problem with the budget isn’t (just) that legislators are assholes who refuse to do their jobs, it’s that 2/3 requirement, which rewards assholery. The idea behind 1F, that legislators should be prodded into compromise by negative financial incentives is just as unethical and cynical and antithetical to democracy as bribing them would be. Any politician this would work on is not worthy of public office. 1F is populism for infants, and polls say it’s more popular than ice cream and puppy dogs and probably the only one of these that will pass. No on 1F.
Result: Yes, 73.9%. Let it never be said that Californians don't fall for cheap populism. Hey, I've got an idea: let's just elect politicians who don't need salaries that keep up with inflation, rich people, like, I don't know, maybe movie stars. I'm sure nothing could go wrong with that.

A warning: there are no good choices here. A-E all involve some form of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Someone gets screwed no matter how you vote, and if the majority of Californians follow my recommendations, terrible things will happen, though a different set of terrible things than if they vote the other way. For example, hocking future lottery revenues, taking from future years in order to plug holes in the 2008-9 budget, is short-sightedness of the first order, but if 1C fails, there will be a $5 billion gap that will require some combination of taxes and spending cuts.

And that choice exemplifies how these 6 initiatives have made an already broken budgetary process downright deranged. I mean, we know what we get if 1C passes but not what the Legislature will do if it fails – how can voters make an informed decision? We’re voting on whether there will be a 3rd year of increased sales tax, but not on years 1 and 2. And since the 6 initiatives are meant to be a package, interesting but unpredictable things will happen if some of them pass but not others.

Comments, rebuttals, and the wailing of the damned are welcome in the comments sections.

(Update: see also the SF Bay Guardian's well-explained recommendations (no on everything).

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