The question in the new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California that best captures the state’s political zeitgeist is this:
“Would you say the state government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or is it run for the benefit of all the people?”
The response of those surveyed was resounding and universal, regardless of party, gender, age, education, or whether they got a good night’s sleep: By virtually every measure, three out of four Californians believe that in Sacramento, the fix is in. Among likely voters, 76 percent say special interests dominate, the biggest margin since PPIC started breaking out data from this group on this question five years ago.
In other words, when ordinary people think of the Capitol, they see insiders skimming the financial and political cream, while they’re stuck on the outside looking in, noses pressed to the window.
In that atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine a more bone-headed scheme than Propositions 1A-1E that the Capitol’s political elites could have devised to convince voters to support the dead-of-night budget bail-out that Arnold and legislative leaders concocted back in February.
The measures may be -– as Calbuzzer Fred Keeley noted here back in March -– the best bad deal you’ll get. But a man from Mars, or even, say, New Jersey, who suddenly arrived in California and took a look at this special election collection of political detritus would be easily forgiven for thinking it was devised by a gang of alien con men, living in an alternate universe and addicted to speaking in acronyms and obfuscatory legal gibberish jargon.
Most media coverage of the props campaign (including here) has focused on the back and forth about tax increases versus program cuts, and its predictable, tit-for-tat ideological rhetoric. Forget that for a moment — take a step back and just look at these things through the eyes of a normal voter who doesn’t his spend his life poring through The Target Book and getting iPhone RSS feeds from the Leg Analyst’s office. Here’s you what you see:
1. The props were carefully crafted to avoid causing any pain or requiring any sacrifice by Sacramento’s heavyweight special interests.
While the governor’s initiatives would require a working stiff to pay more at the K-Mart checkout stand, at the DMV registration window and at the 7-11 lotto ticket counter, the oil, alcohol and entertainment industries, the mighty California Teachers Association and the Native American casino operators, among others, get a pass: in exchange they’ve ponied up millions to help Arnold pass the props.
Rich details of this dynamic were reported out in a recent piece of terrific investigative work by the indefatigable Shane Goldmacher, published in the Sacramento Bee, here and here.
“The entire architecture of the ballot pact that emerged was heavily shaped by leaders’ desire to please – or at least neutralize – the state’s most powerful political players,” wrote scoop artist Shane.* “Now, some of those very interest groups protected in the budget deal are bankrolling the campaign to ratify it.”
2. The props were written with stultifying complexity, the better to sell them to voters with simple-minded sound bites.
While you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree in physics to understand the May 19 measures, you damned well better know someone who does, and is willing to spend a couple hours walking you through the ballot’s differential equations.
In one of the most telling columns of the campaign, our grizzled friend George Skelton of the L.A. Times recounted how Schwarzenegger called him up to complain because he kept writing that Prop. 1A is complicated:
“It’s already complicated as it is,” the governor says, ’but the more you write about how complicated it is, the more complicated you make the complication.” “Explain it a little bit simpler,” he urges in a phone chat.”
Ever a heroic solider in the daily war of words, Skelton performed a mighty yeoman effort to explain the damn thing as simply as possible, but was forced to conclude:
“Sorry, governor, Prop. 1A is complicated. It defies a simple explanation, especially when linked with a tax bill and school funding prop.”
This just in: The CTA, now bombarding the airwaves with Yes-on-1A-and-1B ads, doesn’t want the voters to bother their silly little heads with all those boring complications; so they put a teacher in their new ad to say that defeat of the two props “won’t hurt the politicians, just the students.”
3. The political perspective of the props has far more to do with inside-the-cul-de-Sac tactics and strategy than with the real lives of real people.
Thus, Capitol courtier scribes devote reams of column inches to admiring the inside baseball nuances of the props – e.g. Dan Weintraub on “Anti-tax activists miss the point of Prop. 1A” — than analyzing how the tax increases would affect the millions of Californians who’ve lost their jobs, or expect to, any day now; the little people, it seems, are just too simple to understand the deliciously Machiavellian subtleties of their political masters.
As a policy matter, the potential fall-out from the likely defeat of the major budget props – a state government cash shortage, unpaid vendors, poor and sick people missing benefit checks, cancellation of construction projects, public employee layoffs – will dramatically raise the stakes for coming up with a solution to the budget mess that voters find palatable.
Memo to the Big Five: There’s a lot of anger out there and more political fast talk and financial con games on your part is only going to stoke it. For a tutorial in how to talk about this stuff without insulting people’s intelligence, you might check out this video from the New American Foundation, the non-partisan, non-profit think tank led by former WashPost managing editor Steve Coll.
*Scoopster Shane has been scooped up by the LA Times Capitol bureau — a big blow to the Sac Bee.