Oh God, yet another special election! If for no other reason, the Schwarzenegger administration will go down in California history as one that was founded by, relied upon, and often defined by special elections.
Like the 2005 special election, this one exists entirely to push through a series of "reform measures" proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger. However, this time there's a huge difference. Last time the governor was using the system to make an end-run around the legislature, using his campaign machine to get the requisite voter signatures to get the measures on the ballot. And they went down in flames. This time he's working with the legislature. In fact, for possibly the first time in history, this whole suite of ballot measures is supported by not only the governor but by the leaders of both parties in both chambers! (Big caveat: They were supported by all four party leaders. Senate minority leader Dave Cogdill was ousted from his position for supporting the package. Miraculous bipartisanship only goes so far.)
These measures represent a series of compromises supported by the governor and two-thirds majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate. That says a lot to me. This is how politics are supposed to work. The end result isn't always pretty, it's never perfect, and nobody gets what they'd really like. But they get something the majority can agree upon. In fact the only reason they need to put all this on the ballot is because of California's broken system which has, with almost every ballot measure, added layer on layer of laws and amendments which can only be changed by further ballot measures. As long as it's coming before us, I don't think we can abdicate our decision-making authority, so I'm still going to look at the measures closely, but I'm going to err toward giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Let's also clear the air on another matter. These measures will not fix the system. I don't think anybody believes that. While there are some long-term changes being made, they're mostly designed to get us through the next few years. They will not solve California's serious systemic financial problems. Anyone who's voting against these in hopes of getting something better is engaging in wishful thinking – this is, quite literally, the only plan on the table. And if you truly believe that the California government needs to suffer a major financial collapse so that it can be "re-built" from scratch, I have one question for you: what guarantees do you have that your particular dream for government reconstruction is going to be the one that gets chosen, and not just another patchwork of compromises which may actually shift the balance toward your ideological opponents?
So, on to the measures:
Prop 1A – This is the meat of the package. It's also a total mish-mash of bureaucratese and arcane financial formulas that I'm sure gave nightmares to the poor legislative analyst, who had to try to summarize it for the common voter. The short term changes seem to be summed up by saying they'll extend some temporary taxes for a few years – fine with me. The long term changes are much more confusing, but from what I can tell it all boils down to some fairly minor tweaking to the state's "rainy-day fund" systems, including a slight shift of power toward the governor's office. It may or may not help, but it doesn't look likely to hurt. It's a constitutional amendment, which makes me leery, but really, nothing here looks earth-shattering. In fact the legislative analyst goes out of his way to emphasize that while these rules shift budget priorities, there's nothing draconic about them – they still leave a lot of leeway for the governor and the legislature to control the budget by raising or lowering taxes or spending. So here's where the benefit of the doubt comes in. 67% of the guys we elected to do this job say this will help, so I say let 'em do it. YES
Prop 1B – This is basically a rider on 1A that will only go into effect if both it and 1A pass. Again, it's bunch of arcane financial formulae, this time mostly dealing with the education funds which were "raided" by the government over the past few years in order to cover budget shortfalls. Looking behind the scenes at the stories in the news, it appears that this measure exists mainly to appease the teachers' unions and other education leaders who want to force repayment of those funds. I'm of two minds on this one. I certainly want those funds to be repaid, but I don't want to break the bank to do so. It's mandatory spending formulas that got us into this mess to begin with – the governor and legislature took that money because they thought it was needed elsewhere, not because they were trying to gut the education system. And while they've always promised to pay the money back "some day" there's no guarantee that they'll have the money to do so any time soon. Education is important, but so are hospitals, police, firemen, and road crews. So I'm leaning toward No on this one. Even without 1B, there's nothing actually preventing the governor and legislature from paying the money back, but they'll be able to do it when they can afford it, not because of mandated spending priorities. NO (with reservations)
Prop 1C – Behind all the legalese, this is pretty simple. It allows the California government to borrow against future earnings from the Lottery. At first I wasn't wild about this, until I read the fine print. Because we're basically "selling" future earnings, the bond purchasers are taking all the risk! If for some reason Lottery sales plummet, we still have the money they paid up front. Sounds to me like an easy way to get some quick cash right away. YES
(Side note: In looking into this measure, I discovered why a simple procedural matter like this needs to go to the voters and just how exactly fucked up the state constitution is. Article IV, Section 19(a) of the California Constitution says: "The Legislature has no power to authorize lotteries, and shall prohibit the sale of lottery tickets in the State." The rest of the Section then goes on to say all the ways gambling is okay, with every sentence preceded by the clause "notwithstanding subdivision (a)", including "(d) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), there is authorized the establishment of a California State Lottery." So the Constitution establishes a lottery, but the legislature doesn't have the power to govern it! WTF?)
Props 1D and 1E– These two measures are the same basic concept. Recent ballot measures (Prop 10 and Prop 63) set up special taxes on cigarettes (10) and rich people (63) whose revenues are directed into specific funds designed to support pre-school education (10) and county mental health services (63). Both funds are running well in the black and have substantial unspent surpluses. So the governor and legislature want to raid them to help cover deficits in the general fund. But because the funds were established by voters, only the voters can authorize that. This is just plain common sense. Yes, I support pre-school education and county mental health services. But like I said above in 1B – they're important, but so are lots of other things. They've got money to spare, and I say let's use it where it's needed, not where some pre-set formula tells us it should go. I opposed both of those propositions specifically because they were classic examples of mandatory spending and ballot box budgeting. Since I would support permanently putting all of those revenues put back into the general fund, I have no problem with authorizing a one-time exemption for a partial transfer. YES and YES
Prop 1F – This one's just silly. It's not really part of the "reform package", but was thrown into the mix to get the support of Senator Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who's just about the only person who seems to want this. It's one of those populist measures designed to placate the "punish the politicians" curmudgeons, but carefully crafted to look tough while having no real effect. Most state legislators are not dependent on their state salaries anyway, so blocking raises now and then won't really make any difference, especially when they can just vote themselves extra big raises to make up for it in years when they do balance the budget. If you want to make a symbolic gesture against "fat-cat politicians", vote for it. If you want to make a symbolic gesture against "disingenous propositions", vote against it. If you want to make a symbolic (and probably way too subtle to be noticed) gesture against "unnecessary elections", don't vote on it at all. My official recommendation is a big WHATEVER