The Public Eye: Prop. 1A — No Answer to California’s Problem

By Bob Burnett
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 06:52:00 PM

Polls indicate that California voters are confused about Proposition 1A, which comes up for a vote on May 19. While Gov. Arnold Schwarz-enegger is for 1A, the California Republican Party opposes it. California Democrats are similarly split. Proposition 1A is unusually contentious because it proposes to fix a symptom rather than the underlying problem. 

California’s finances are in shambles because the budget process makes no sense. California is one of three states requiring a two-thirds legislative majority to pass a budget. Year after year, Republicans are able to highjack the process.  

The latest California registration statistics show Democrats widening their lead over Republicans, 44.6 percent to 31.1 percent, with 20 percent “decline to state” and 4.4 percent scattered among other parties. Republicans don’t have a majority of registered voters in a single congressional or legislative district and Washington Dems are talking about picking up eight new California congressional seats in 2010. 

Given the rising tide of voter support, why have state Democrats been so timid? 

The answer stems from February’s draconian bloody budget battle. After weeks of stalemate, and several consecutive all-night sessions, on Feb. 19 the California Legislature reached a two-part budget agreement. It closed the state’s $41 billion deficit through a combination of temporary tax increases, painful permanent service cuts, and $5.4 billion in new borrowing. However, to reach accord with a handful of Republican legislators to get the two-thirds majority required to pass the budget, Democrats were forced to agree to six budget-related propositions, including Proposition 1A that mandates a permanent spending cap. 

Apparently, California’s Democratic leaders chose the lesser of two evils, freezing expenditures at current levels, rather than have California go an indeterminate period with no budget. The same leaders entered into a Faustian bargain with Schwarzenegger wherein they would support Proposition 1A. 

In classic dark humor, a robber demands “Your money or your life” and the victim responds “Take my life; I’m saving my money for my old age.” The logic of California Democratic leaders is similarly nonsensical.  

Proposition 1A prohibits legislators from taking full advantage of additional revenues when California comes out of the recession and, instead, subjects service increases to an impenetrable equation that locks spending to a baseline that is already too low to guarantee provision of adequate services. In addition, Proposition 1A shifts responsibility for future budget decisions away from the legislature and onto invisible state employees who would have to decipher the proposition’s abstruse language and perform the linear regression analysis required to determine the revenue cap. And Proposition 1A allows the governor to make unilateral mid-year budget cuts. 

If Proposition 1A passes, most ob-servers expect painful degradation of service. Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, notes, “The baseline established by the proposed formula would be $14.2 billion below the amount needed to support the 2010-11 budget based on the governor’s long-term forecast.” 

It’s clear that California’s Democratic legislators were between the proverbial rock and a hard place and tried to do the best they could. But that’s no excuse. It’s not enough to put a temporary budget fix in place. The fundamental problem needs to be addressed. 

In the June 2010 primary election, voters will be given the opportunity to change the rules governing the California budget process. In the meantime, Proposition 1A should be rejected. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at