Californians Hold The Power Of The Proposition

There's no end in sight to California's ongoing budget nightmare.

Without a spending plan, the state is now issuing IOUs instead of checks for an assortment of things, including state tax refunds.

Clearly, California is in crisis. One factor is the many voter-approved initiatives that control the way state money is spent. It's commonly called "ballot-box budgeting."

Listing the things that Californians have voted for over the years sounds a little like a quarterback calling a play: Prop 98, Prop 13, 49, 10, 36, hike! But every single one of those numbers represents a ballot initiative that in some fashion controls the public purse.

Take Proposition 49. In 2002, voters decided they would like to have more after-school programs and voted yes on Proposition 49, a pet cause of Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became governor. The program costs more than $500 million a year, says Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, head of the Senate budget committee.

"Last year, when we tried to suggest that ... it ought to be flexible in these very difficult years, the governor vetoed that legislation," Ducheny recalls. "So the irony is this year we are cutting schools, but his initiative for after-school programs is fully funded."

Ducheny is one of several lawmakers who want to change the initiative process. One of her proposals would require an initiative that costs money to also include a new tax or some other way to pay for it. This would only affect future initiatives, not the ones Ducheny struggles with now.

But Californians like the power they have.

The California electorate generally gets it right, says Jim Brulte, former head of the Republican caucuses in the state Assembly and then in the Senate. He never felt especially constrained by so-called ballot-box budgeting.

"I think the voters tend to believe that the Legislature and the governor should run the state," Brulte says. "Voters tend to engage where they reach a point where they're no longer willing to wait. So they tend to act with a vengeance."

Scalpel Vs. Sledgehammer

The most famous example of that is Proposition 13. In the 1970s, voters were angry that property taxes were skyrocketing and that elected officials had done nothing about it. So, in the legendary taxpayer revolt, they rolled back their property taxes and limited future increases.

"Legislation is a scalpel. The ballot initiative is a sledgehammer," says Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"Voters tend to be interested in immediate gratification," Schnur says. "And if they are asked to vote for something that is appealing to them, there's no part of the package that says, 'You might like this now, but will you like it in 10 or 20 years?' "

So, says Schnur, they may not have been focused on the part of Proposition 13 that said that no tax of any kind can be raised without a two-thirds vote.

"The initiative process isn't designed to offer a cost-benefit analysis," Schnur says. "A ballot initiative is drafted saying: Would you like this or not?"

"If representatives don't have the power of the purse, you can't make policy, you can just talk about it," says Don Perata. Perata, a Democrat and the former head of the state Senate, helped craft a bunch of budget deals over the years. He has another example of a proposition that limits legislators — Proposition 98. It devotes at least 40 percent of the general fund to public education.

"Good cause, but when you start tying all that up, you have very little maneuverability," Perata says. "And when people want you to respond to their needs and you can't, they don't understand why, and it accounts for the gridlock that's up there now."

And even if the state Legislature passes a proposal to change the initiative process to help loosen the gridlock, it would still have to be approved by a vote of the people.

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