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Prop. 30 ads – wrong (thank goodness)

Ethan Rarick, director, Matsui Center | October 4, 2012

The new ads touting the governor’s tax increase emphasize that the money would be locked away for public education. It’s a phony claim, but ironically that’s a good thing. It would be the worse for being true.

The fact is that the state’s budget process is too constricted rather than not constricted enough. The fiscal set-asides created by voters restrict the ability of the Legislature and the governor to manage the state’s finances reasonably amid changing circumstances. If Prop. 30 really created the sort of locked, unbreakable safe displayed in the measure’s own TV ads, it might be a reason to vote no.

Fortunately, Prop. 30 would free up billions that could be spent flexibly. The Associated Press provided a useful summary, including an interesting quote from the governor himself, and the state’s much respected Legislative Analyst’s Office has made the same general point.

Back to the inflexibility of the state’s budget generally: That is part of a broader dynamic in which voters create an unbending policymaking system that doesn’t work to solve problems – and then get mad at politicians for failing to solve problems. Pick your favorite California bogeyman: a minority veto on fiscal affairs, a tax system that relies too heavily on high-income earners, term limits. All have been, in part or in whole, created by voters.

Here’s a nice description of the downward spiral from the ever-valuable California Crack-Up by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul:

“The public distrusts the legislature and their elected officials. So voters, preferring to trust themselves, make major policy decisions via ballot initiative. These decisions, because of the requirement that initiatives not be changed by legislators alone, further tie the hands of lawmakers. The frustrated lawmakers find it difficult to solve pressing problems, further fueling the public frustration that produces more initiatives and more hand-tying. This vicious cycle produces anger, more budgeting at the ballot box, and poor governance.”

Obviously I understand why the Prop. 30 campaign is telling voters that all the money will be spent on education, now and forevermore. It’s a good sell politically. Thank goodness it’s not really true.

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