California needs leadership, not evasions

Typically in the wake of disasters there is a mess to clean up. California’s interminable budget crisis qualifies as an ongoing disaster. On the maxim that those who make messes should clean them up, the politicians in Sacramento have no business following up their failure to exercise budgetary discipline by throwing the alleged solution into the laps of voters in the May 19 special election. The package of propositions 1A through 1F imposes budgetary gimmicks, raises taxes, puts more money into education, borrows money from the lottery, transfers funds from some programs to fund others, and delays officials’ pay increases in order somehow to end the annual gap between expenditures and revenues. But it suffers from two major defects: it derives from the same politicians who largely got the State into its current fiscal mess and it attempts to make up for their lack of prudence with constitutional and statutory tinkering.

When public policy is bad, surely it should change. But the best way to ensure change is to change those who made the bad policy. What the Democrat-dominated State Legislature needs is tough love, not enabling. Therefore, voters should turn down all six propositions, whatever the specific merits of any of them.

The strongest proof of the questionable paternity of these "save the day" measures is the deception in the first and most critical of them: Proposition 1A. Its aims, as summarized by the Legislative analyst in the Voter Guide (pp. 10-15) are to

* increase the State’s "rainy day" fund from five to 12.5 percent of the General Fund;

* dedicate some annual deposits into that fund for future economic downturns and the rest to fund education, infrastructure and debt repayment, or for use in emergencies; and

* require additional revenues above historic trends to be deposited in the "rainy day" fund.

A careful reader might wonder just where the "additional revenues" will come from. No answer to this question can be found in the summary (or in that provided on the sample ballot, either), but near the bottom of page 10 we read: "If this measure is approved, several tax increases passed as part of the February 2009 budget package would be extended by one to two years. State revenues would increase by about $16 billion from 2010-11 to 2012-13."

At the bottom of the next page and following, voters are reminded that the sales tax was increased from eight to nine percent, the vehicle tax rate was raised from .65 percent to 1.15 percent of a vehicle’s value, and the personal income tax rate was raised by .25, ranging from increases of one to 10.3 percent, depending on income.

The political advertisements I have seen on television stations mention nothing whatever about this "additional revenue," speaking only in glittering generalities about how great it is that finally something is going to be done to restrain the politicians in Sacramento who got us into this mess.

Propositions 1A through 1C and IF are constitutional amendments and 1D and 1E are revised statutes. Once again, California’s already incredibly long Constitution is being burdened with still more specific provisions which are designed to particularize the judgments our elected officials make rather than holding them accountable to the voters for their decisions.

The massive defect of such a constitution is that it defies the efforts of all but the most sagacious and interested parties from understanding it and blurs the distinction between the supreme law, which establishes the government, and the statutes which are intended to be consistent with its limitations.

Thus, constitutionally, as well as fiscally, California's political leaders are attempting to fix bad or inadequate decisions of the past with decisions cut from the same cloth. Rather than exercising fiscal and budgetary prudence as a constitutional duty, they are lurching from one crisis to the next without owning up to the primary cause of the problem, which is themselves.

Denying the Legislature and the Governor the power once again to cobble together a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to put a brake on their own insatiable desires to tax, spend and elect will do far more to promote fiscal discipline than this clever package, which conceals the source of the problem.

Instead, we should look forward to the implementation of the redistricting plan Californians passed last November that will, for the first time in years, permit the design of state legislative districts with greater attention to geographic and demographic realities and less to assuring safe seats that keep incumbents in office. The real need is for open and competitive elections, not more evasions.