Prop. 1A YesProp. 1B NoProp. 1C NoProp. 1D NoProp. 1E NoProp. 1F Yes
Nearly everyone who regularly makes election recommendations—and isn't a special interest directly impacted by specific ballot measures—rues what the Los Angeles Times recently called “hands-free budgeting,” otherwise known as ballot measures that put spending decisions on autopilot. Proposition 98, which, approved by voters in 1988, set a minimum level of funding for public education in California, is a classic example.
Even so, the L.A. Times, along with the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee, have recommended a “yes” vote on Prop. 1A on the May 19 special-election ballot, despite its autopilot decision-making provisions. In fact, the three major dailies want you to vote “yes” all the way down the ballot, save for the Times' and the Bee's rejection of Prop. 1B. The package of initiatives is flawed, the dailies assert, but the state's dire budget situation leaves voters little choice.
Well, we don't agree. Voters do have a choice. They don't have to perpetuate bad policy just because of failures of the state's elected officials to cope with the recession, which has exacerbated an already unsound year-to-year budget situation.
Of the six initiatives, the least offensive are the bookends, Props. 1A and 1F. We'd be OK with your blanket decision to reject the bunch, but, on balance, we think 1A and 1F are decent medicine. Prop. 1A forces the governor and the Legislature to do what they should be doing on their own: Spend money more responsibly over the long term and strengthen the state's rainy-day fund. It also temporarily extends recently enacted tax increases. Prop. 1F is a slab of red meat tossed to angry voters; it bans pay raises for legislators when budget deficits are projected. We'd consider it silly and unnecessary if the state's salary-setting commission had to consider the condition of the state's finances as a factor in its decision, but it doesn't have to, so Prop. 1F is a good idea.
Prop. 1B, seen as a payoff for the state teachers union in exchange for its support for these measures, is the worst of the six. It mandates $1.5 billion every year in additional education spending from the General Fund until $9.3 billion is reached. We're all for more education spending, but we don't like budgetary mandates that come at the expense of other programs, and we don't like taxpayer-funded political payoffs.
Prop. 1C would allow the state to borrow $5 billion from future lottery profits in order to help balance the 2009-2010 budget, and then pay it back using lottery money that currently goes to schools; then the state would backfill that education money from the General Fund. Confused? It would also allow the lottery to increase the amount of revenue it pays out to winners (currently about 50 percent), which leads proponents to believe that more suckers will play. Between $350 million to $450 million in interest costs would be added to the state's debt each year for the next 20 to 30 years, paid for by future lottery profits.
This measure is a horrible case of kicking the problem into the future and making it worse later. It's basically a tax on gamblers—albeit voluntary—and it relies on gambling to become a bigger problem than it already is. This is a terrible way to fund basic state operations.
Props. 1D and 1E would allow the state to hijack, over the next five years, roughly $1 billion raised through 1998's Prop. 10, which taxed tobacco to pay for early-childhood programs, and 2004's Prop. 63, which taxed rich people to pay for mental-illness programs. The way we see it, early-childhood and mental-health programs are investments in preventive care that later will reduce costs for such things as welfare, emergency healthcare and criminal justice. Bad idea.
Proponents of Props. 1C, 1D and 1E say that voting “no” would cause lawmakers to have to cut badly needed social programs. We prefer to stand on good-government principles now and fight that battle in the coming months. What we need to do in the short term is chip away at the prison-industrial complex that's been built up by an unholy alliance between the prison guards union and fear-mongering, tough-on-crime politicians. And we'll say it again: What needs to happen in the long term is real budget reform, and the way to start is by convening a budget commission that assesses our service needs and determines how much tax money is required to pay for it. We won't hold our breath.