By Calbuzzer Fred Keeley
The May 19th ballot package is the best bad deal you will get.
Despite the claims to the contrary by the governor and leaders of the Legislature, the packet of ballot measures that implement the February Follies budget is, for the most part, lousy public policy.
The single exception is Proposition 1A, which would create an effective tool for reducing the tremendous volatility in the General Fund portion of the state budget. (Yes, it extends tax increases, but it’s still worth supporting.)
As to the other elements, they are further evidence of the need for profound reform of California’s budgeting system — a system that for decades has failed to produce a budget that reflects the needs and aspirations of most Californians.
When the deal was done, California slipped from 44th to last in the nation in per-pupil spending in K-12 public schools. A severely under-funded public mental health system will be even more threadbare and ineffective. The highly-regarded First Five program for young children will be stalled in its tracks. And the California Lottery, a mockery of a public enterprise if ever there was one, will be further disgraced by becoming, effectively, a credit card.
Why, then, should voters support these measures?
First, it’s the best bad deal that the current system can produce. Under the current budget-making architecture, irreconcilable belief systems are given equal value and left unsettled. For example, it has been reported here and elsewhere that many members of the Republican Caucus in the Assembly and state Senate were urging party members to withhold their votes for the budget in order to drive the state into bankruptcy.
Some people may think that’s utterly irresponsible. But for Republican legislators who believe that “government schools” cannot be made better by increasing funding, but, rather by injecting competition, or that the only way to break the stranglehold of the prison guards union is to contract management of the system to a private firm, to them, California’s fiscal crisis was not about coming up with an 18-month solution: it was about the chance for Republicans to see their belief system become reality.
Second, the few folks who will go to the polls in May will see two measures that contradict their previous messages to budget writers in Sacramento. The First Five and Mental Health “sweeps” will seem offensive in the extreme to those who fought to enact them in the first place. Convincing those folks that it will only get worse if they don’t approve all of the measures on the ballot, will be asking skeptical voters to suspend disbelief.
Third, the Legislative Analysts Office says that the budget deal has already fallen apart. A new projected $8 billion deficit is prepared to come into full bloom before the end of this fiscal year. Additionally, the Department of Finance, in moments of private pondering, sees that as a fairly “happy” deficit projection. Combine that reality with the failure of the May 19th ballot measures, and a new $12-15 billion deficit will present itself to the governor and legislature.
More importantly, the tools for fixing that problem in early June will consist of a bit of borrowing and a ton of budget cuts. The Republicans who saw their chance to prevail in the clash of beliefs in February may well be in the driver’s seat again.
So, if you are a voter who believes that we simply cannot expect high quality public education while we are looking up at Mississippi in terms of per-pupil spending, or if you are a voter who believes that decades of programmatic retrenchment in the areas of health, human services, environmental protection, infrastructure, affordable housing or any of the other policy areas where California has fallen from leadership and grace, then you’ll vote “yes” on each and every ballot measure May 19.
It’s the best bad deal you’re going to get.
Fred Keeley is the elected Treasurer of the County of Santa Cruz, a former member of the California Assembly, a member of the Governor’s Commission on the Economy of the 21st Century, and a member of the Leadership Council of California Forward.