Friday, February 06, 2009

Why California is screwed

Ezra Klein sums it up pretty well:

California effectively has four branches of government: The governor, the legislature, the courts, and the ballot initiatives. And these last have ripped through our finances. The firms that build ballot initiatives aren't stupid: People like what they don't think they're paying for. Sparkly sidewalks are good. Sparkly sidewalks that require higher taxes are bad. And so most ballot initiatives pass without a revenue source. Which means they're paid for out of general revenues. Which means there is less money for everything else. The legislature cannot reject the initiatives, but both their bills and the ballot proposals are coming from the same pool of money. So the legislature returns after the elections and must now build a balanced budget -- including all the same programs, plus population growth, plus anything new -- without $600 million that used to fund education but is now allocated to more sparkles in the sidewalk.

And we're looking at a considerable sum that's out of their control. Last August, Mark Paul estimated that these programs were now equivalent to about 9% of the total general fund, "or about the total cost of all of today's state social service programs."

Then, of course, is the second problem: The legislature effectively can't raise revenues. Taxes require a 2/3rds majority and California's Republicans are mono-maniacally anti-tax. It is, after all, the only thing they can control. So essentially, California operates with a government that can't control either spending or revenues. It's not a good situation.

So I think the solution is some combination of:
  1. Reform the ballot initiative system so it's harder to get initiatives passed, or invalidate all unfunded ballot initiatives.
  2. Repeal Prop 13 (a ballot initiative!) that requires a 2/3 majority to raise taxes, and allows property taxes to get wildly out of synch with property values (but only in the direction that limits revenue).
  3. Abolish the 2/3 requirement to pass a budget.
  4. Defeat enough Republicans so that Democrats can get to 2/3 on their own.
  5. Reform the Republican party so that they aren't so hostile to raising revenue.

I understand that nobody likes taxes and that taxes that are too high can damage the economy. But current Republican orthodoxy is ALWAYS hostile to raising revenue. It doesn't matter if there are two wars or a massive budget shortfall, raising any kind of revenue is always anathema. This is not principle. This is lunacy.


Blogger Evan Ravitz said...

Solutions to ballot initiative problems have been generally agreed on and available for many decades. But legislators NEVER improve the process, only make it harder (not affecting the wealthy much) and trying to hobble it in various ways (this year, with AZ Prop. 105 and CO Ref. O, both wisely defeated by voters).

Voters on ballot initiatives need what legislators get: public hearings, expert testimony, amendments, reports, etc. The best project for such deliberative process is the National Initiative for Democracy, led by former Sen. Mike Gravel: Also and

In Switzerland, petitions are left at government offices and stores for people to read and sign at leisure, so there are less aggressive petitioners, more informed signers, and less $ required. The Swiss vote on initiatives 3-7 times a year so there's never too many on one ballot. Because they have real power (including national initiatives), the Swiss read more newspapers/capita than anyone else.

In Switzerland, representatives are humbler and more representative after centuries of local and cantonal (state) ballot initiatives, and national initiatives since 1891. They call their system "co-determination." This works for all relationships!

8:25 AM, February 06, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

California must get rid of it's illegal immigrants. Some cities there are even serving as havens for them. All of those ideas you named are excellent, but with the massive drain from illegals, they are too little too late. I am convinced that this is a major part of the problem that people are purposefully overlooking.

10:18 PM, July 12, 2009  

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