Between October of 2003 and November of 2008, Californians cast ballots in nine statewide elections. Along the way, you decided 66 state ballot measures.
But the folks in Sacramento don’t think you have suffered enough. Ready or not, absentee ballots for another statewide election arrive in the mail next week. While your household grapples with the worst economic conditions in 70 years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature want you to pay a little more.
As usual, this hodgepodge of ballot measures combines good intentions, confusion, borrowing and financial gimmickry in equal measures.
What’s at stake? Without the tax revenues promised by Proposition 1A, the state faces an additional $16 billion shortfall over three years – in addition to the existing $8 billion gap between revenues and spending.
Translation: If key proposals are approved, state and local government will limp along for another year. If the measures are rejected, state and local government will be in crisis mode again – with the prospect of more layoffs and more program reductions.
Opinion polls show that most Californians don’t know what is contained in these six ballot measures. In fact, many voters don’t even know there’s an election on the way.
“People are quite surprised when they hear about it,” Sonoma County Elections Manager Elizabeth Acosta told me. “It’s new to a lot of people. That’s our sense.”
The same polls show that the voters who do know what’s in store are less than enthusiastic about endorsing additional taxes during economic hard times. Even in liberal Sonoma County, an informal online poll of Press Democrat readers suggested local people are divided.
Statewide, only one of six measures is enjoying the support of a majority of voters, according to the March survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s the only measure that gives voice to the public’s antipathy toward state politicians.
We talk a lot about the state’s perennial budget crisis, but what we have here is a crisis of leadership. We don’t trust this generation of politicians to get anything right, and the more we don’t trust them, the more they prove untrustworthy.
Close to home, we see this disarray reflected in the deterioration of hometown governance. This was the week that Petaluma announced its intentions to outsource its planning department.
And this was the week that county supervisors announced plans for a major building program, even as they scrambled to cut spending by at least $11 million in the next fiscal year.
The word that comes to mind is . . . surreal.
In simple terms, this election will decide whether the state will be tossed back into the budget mess that existed before Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature agreed on a grab bag of fixes in February.
To help you get started – assuming you want to get started – here’s the line-up for the May 19 election:
– Proposition 1A would extend for up to two years the sales, income and vehicle tax increases contained in the February budget agreement. The additional cost to taxpayers would be $16 billion between 2010 and 2013. The measure would also mandate an increase in the size of the state’s emergency fund and limit new spending in years in which revenues are high. The proposal is designed to placate liberals and conservatives, but as a political strategy, it’s met with mixed success.
– Proposition 1B would provide an additional $9.3 billion in spending on education in future years, supplementing recent budget cuts. But – and here’s the hook – it won’t take effect unless Proposition 1A passes.
– Proposition 1C would authorize the state to borrow $5 billion against future lottery profits. You may recognize a familiar pattern: Let’s find yet another way to borrow against the future.
-Proposition 1D would allow the state to take $608 million over two years from the state Children and Families Commission. The money, derived from tobacco taxes, would be re-directed to other children’s services.
-Proposition 1E would allow the state to take $460 million over two years from money designated for mental health programs.
-Proposition 1F would deny raises to state lawmakers in years in which they fail to pass a balanced budget. Which could be almost every year.
Guess which measure is supported by 81 percent of the voters in the last PPIC poll. The support for Proposition 1F is what happens when the approval rating of the state Legislature is 11 percent. Yes, 11 percent. Not even Dick Cheney fell to an 11 percent approval rating.
Note that three of these measures attempt to modify mandates from previous ballot measures: Proposition 1B (Proposition 98 from 1988), Proposition 1D (Proposition 10 from 1998), and Proposition 1E (Proposition 63 from 2004). In California, we spend a lot of time tying ourselves into knots.
So, here we are. No one brings any enthusiasm to this election – even though the consequences will be lasting.
As good citizens, we promise to stay informed and to vote – so long as we don’t have to pretend that this latest election is anything other than proof that state government is an embarrassment to us all.
Note: If you don’t vote by mail, you may not be voting at your usual polling place. As a cost-cutting measure, the number of polling places for the May 19 election has been reduced from 304 to 169. For more information, check your sample ballot or visit the Sonoma County Elections Department Web site here.