Bee to Voters: Budget Woes Are Your Fault

In a front page story today, the Bee chastises voters (presumably some of whom, you know, work at the Bee) for making the state “ungovernable” with our insistence on both mandatory spending and no tax increases.

Only 4 percent [of voters], according to a recent poll, have a “great deal” of confidence that lawmakers can do the right thing on the overdue spending plan.

But the same voters have passed laws that virtually guarantee annual spending increases for education, severely restrict what can be cut from transportation and local governments and make it virtually impossible to raise taxes.

The research that must have gone into pinpointing the voting records of every single California voter boggles the mind. Especially since nobody born after 1960 can be blamed for the passage of Prop 13 in 1978.

(And btw Heckasac, DB, et al.: Do you see the difference between “the same voters have passed laws” and “I can’t help feeling that some of the same people wouldn’t offer sympathy”?)

The story is full of comments from political consultants and others about the patchwork of ballot initiatives requiring mandatory spending and others restricting tax increases, and the effect on these initiatives the state’s budget. The writer, Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Smith, does a good job at pointing out a few angles to consider, for example blaming “huge advertising campaigns powered by special interests” at confusing voters, and noting that there are difficult, but not impossible, ways for the legislature to get around many of the provisions.

However, I can’t help feeling that there could have been another angle to the piece. Voters have yet another reason to be disgusted with the CA legislature: Now they’re blaming the budget problems on us.

My mortgage occupies a fixed amount of our family’s budget, as do various other debts and obligations. When new expenses must be added to the budget, can I complain to the mortgage company that their insistence on mandatory spending is making my budget unmanageable? Likewise, I cannot complain to the mortgage company that my employer has made my budget unmanageable by refusing to increase my income whenever daddy needs a new Starter jacket.

Sure, I get that the ballot initiatives requiring spending on education, for example, can’t be easily circumvented. If times got really tough for my family, I could sell the house. But before I did that it would make sense to cut out everything else that wasn’t nailed down: cable, newspaper, Starter jackets. If I continued to pay for those things while I was in danger of losing my house, wouldn’t that be kind of silly?

I would hope that most legislators understand that the voters trust them to do the same thing with the state’s budget. We are telling you what things we do not want cut, and assuming you will understand that if you need to you should cut the other stuff.

If we voters are guilty of anything, it’s that we assumed our elected leaders would be as responsible with our state as we are with our families.

Author: CoolDMZ

"X-ray vision to see in between / Where's my kimono and my time machine?"

20 thoughts on “Bee to Voters: Budget Woes Are Your Fault”

  1. Prop 13 is the security blanket of the uninformed voter. There are ways that we can restructure the tax system while preserving the intent of Prop 13, which was to keep people from losing their homes to skyrocketing property taxes that we faced in the 1970’s. Our elected officials need to do a better job of educating voters about the need to change this system, and someone needs to have the guts to stand up and lead the fight (Hello, Governor!).

    We can’t really blame voters just because they voted for it. There was a crisis 30 years ago and people reacted to it in a rational manner — by voting in changes that they were told would help. Now it is time for California to adapt to a different form of economic crisis, and the people of California had better get on board or get the hell out of the way and let someone reform it.

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  2. I’d have to agree with the Bee to a large extent. You want to blame the politicians for the budget stalemate? Then give them the room to maneuver they need to craft a rational, forward-looking budget. I believe I’ve seen the point made on this very blog that initiative wars in front of grocery stores are a poor substitute for reasoned legislative action. Prop 13 spawned a whole string of voter-initiated laws dictating how we tax and how we spend. The cumulative effect is that no one, neither the representatives we elect nor the people on the street, are entirely in the driver’s seat.

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  3. Fargo: I’m sure I have made that point on this very blog, but I don’t see how it is conflict with what I’m saying here. I assume voters trust that the legislature will do its job and balance the budget with constraints, just like people making home budgets have to do.

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  4. The comparison isn’t entirely apt. It’s as if the person making the home budget was forced to deal with a patchwork of contradictory priorities and constraints determined by another member of the household. For example, let’s imagine I’m asked to do the budgeting. My wife, who in this example is the sole wage earner, tells me where we’ll live (what our mortgage will be), and how much we’re going to use in gas and electricity every month. And she also tells me that she’s not going to contribute more than x% of her income to pay for said expenses. All of that might, possibly, be fine if, when she was setting our spending goals and her earning commitment, my wife was thinking critically about the relationship between the two decisions. However, that’s not the way taxing and spending initiatives work. Those laws are made piecemeal over years, with no guarantee that people are thinking through the relations between them. Even if we attribute all initiatives since 1978 to the “will” of some fictional collective of “voters,” there’s nothing to suggest that the voting public actually approaches these decisions systematically. Not to say there’s any guarantee that the Legislature could do better, but I personally have more faith in them.

    Now I need to get back to work or my wife will, in fact, be the sole wage earner in our household.

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  5. Yo DMZ, you said: “I would hope that most legislators understand that the voters trust them to do the same thing with the state’s budget.”

    And that’s where you seriously get things wrong. Fargo is correct when he/she says: “However, that’s not the way taxing and spending initiatives work. Those laws are made piecemeal over years, with no guarantee that people are thinking through the relations between them.”

    And they DON’T think the relations between them because often they are not the same legislators with institutional memories–thanks term limits. Additionally, there is a huge disparity in what the public wants and doesn’t want to the point that it seems schizophrenic. Hypothetically, if half the population wants higher taxes to solve the problem and the other half does not and assuming the legislature is split along the same lines, then there are serious issues to consider. But hey, that’s democracy, no one ever said it was pretty and smelled nice.

    My problem is that pragmatism seems to have vanished in our political culture as the rise of rigid ideologues has overtaken any sense or ability to compromise and meet in the middle. And GAS (that’s Governoer Arnold Schwarzenegger) hasn’t done anything to force the issue in the leigslature. He talks about the legislature not sending him a budget but he has been absent from the process for the most part. Read George Skelton’s column in today’s LA Times to get a sense of why it’s important for GAS to be in the thick of things. He’s not showing true leadership here, just a lot of showboating and pretty photo-ops.

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  6. A patchwork of clashing and sometimes contradictory priorities, eh? If only there were some sort of governmental system that could handle that…

    Oh and by the way I completely agree that Arnold is a failure.

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  7. Fargo: Also, how about think of the budget analogy this way. The legislature is you and your wife, and the voters are all the various necessities and nice-to-haves that are out there for you to spend money on. Starter jackets, housing, newspaper, private school, etc. All competing for your dollars. That little puppy–society–has to decide on the budget. Err, I mean the legislature consisting of you and Mrs. P.

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  8. It’s not the “voters” fault: Its the fault of EVERY Californian for not storming the lawmakers’ inner sanctums and dragging their squirming, useless, corrupt bodies out into the streets, and hoisting them by their petards until they promise never to take any money from the public ever again.

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  9. Mezzicun — I agree with much of what you said, I think that reality is much more complicated than your explanation of approx half of Californians wanting higher taxes to solve the problems, and half wanting smaller government.

    If I had to make a guess — 50% participates, 50% does not.

    Of the 50% that participates:

    10% actually understand how government works, and want more revenues to afford the services that California uses.
    10% actually understand how government works, but want the size and scope of government reduced.
    60% are knee jerk reactionaries from all parts of the political spectrum with little understanding of government, but very strong (and probably under-informed) opinions about things.
    20% don’t really care and don’t have very strong opinions, but still participate in the process.

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  10. Since I most accurately fit in that 60%, I think there should be an additional description… 60% knee jerk reactionaries with devastating good looks

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  11. I agree that reality is much more complicated than a 50-50 split, I just used a simple illustration to highlight my point. Of course it breaks down into many more demographic categories…it wouldn’t be modern socity if it didn’t.

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  12. But nobody can seriously argue that we don’t benefit from pluralism. I guess we just have a different level of faith in the average voter, who knows generally what he wants from government and does his best to vote on each issue the way he sees fit, even if he might not be described as “knowing how government works” by people like Stickie who totally does know.

    I do agree that the current initiative process is a mess. But I do think I’m consistent in that I don’t fault the current voters for it. The voters want a balanced budget. We all know there is plenty of spending in the budget that has not been mandated by a ballot initiative. If the legislature can’t balance the budget under the constraints they’ve been given, then the failure is their responsibility. If times are tough enough, you cut everything that isn’t nailed down, like I would do with my household budget. That D-Rays jacket is just not getting bought.

    Also one thing about what Fargo P said: “The cumulative effect is that no one, neither the representatives we elect nor the people on the street, are entirely in the driver’s seat.” Isn’t that more or less how America works, by design?

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  13. I don’t think so… it seems to me we want our representatives to be “in the driver’s seat” with respect to our budget, although we want the voters to exercise periodic reviews of their driving. You don’t want four hands on the steering wheel. OK, I’m going to let that metaphor die.

    I always found it ironic that the California initiative system dates from the same era that also gave us an increase in the number of boards, commissions, and supposedly specialized bodies that increase the involvement of “experts” in government. Apparently, Californians a hundred years ago saw little inconsistency between increasing reliance on scientific or specialized knowledge and increasing public participation. I’m not always sure how compatible those things are.

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  14. This is probably a tomato tomahto thing… I think of our system as ensuring that no ONE entity is COMPLETELY the driver’s seat, but I can definitely see it your way too.

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  15. Nobody totally understands government, some just more than others. Believe me, I am a neophyte compared to most others in my profession.

    The initiative process is SUCH a double edged sword. Sometimes it works awesomely, sometimes it bites us in the ass. Here is one thing to consider, though… Not a single successful initiative has resulted from grassroots efforts since the California Coastal Commission was created by initiative in 1972. Since then, every single one has required a massive cash infusion, which has transformed this process that was supposed to belong to the people into a big business that is controlled by big money interests. More and more frequently, this money isn’t even coming from California, allowing out-of-state interests to make our laws and control our future.

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  16. In which case it’s a stretch to blame today’s budget problem on the current crop of voters. In which case I’m right. 🙂

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  17. I just found this article and the budget problems are thanks to “us” the voters. Just this past election we voted for 4 billion more in spending though propositions. People realized they could vote themselves a handout and they went for it.

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