Dan Walters: California needs more than Proposition 31 to fix what ails it

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 30, 2012 

Dan Walters

California's chronic budget deficits – even in times of economic expansion – testify to its political dysfunction, which is reason to wonder whether a November ballot measure on budget procedures, if enacted, would have much positive effect.

California Forward, a centrist amalgam of civic, political and cultural elites, has proposed what is now Proposition 31 (the numbering sequence is subject to a pending lawsuit). It includes such changes as more public notice on legislation, two-year budgeting cycles and requiring any major new spending program or tax cut to identify an offsetting revenue or savings.

Political activists on the left and right dislike Proposition 31's provisions, which might be a good reason for others to embrace them. But the real question is whether they would truly move California closer to fixing its finances, or merely add another layer of complexity to the Capitol's already byzantine fiscal games.

The history of dictating budget procedures via ballot measure is not encouraging.

More often than not, governors and legislators wind up putting together a political deal to do what they want to do and then dreaming up ways to make it legal, or at least legal enough to get them through another budget cycle.

Take, for instance, Proposition 98, the 1988 constitutional amendment on school finance that only a handful of fiscal mavens profess to understand, and rarely agree on what it means.

When Proposition 98 requires the state to spend more on schools than it has to spend, or more than politicians want to spend vis-à-vis other categories, they employ bookkeeping tricks to give the schools money on paper, but not in cold cash.

Routinely, the Capitol's denizens dream up phantom revenue and ignore spending obligations to produce budgets that are "balanced" on paper but have immense real-world gaps.

So why wouldn't they just ignore or work around Proposition 31? Most certainly they would, if the politics of the moment impelled them to do so.

The budget mess – along with other long-simmering, never-resolved issues such as water, transportation and education – is just a symptom.

California's budget process is dysfunctional because its politics are dysfunctional. They are dysfunctional because an archaic structure does not and cannot reconcile the conflicting demands of a very large and very complex society.

California needs a top- to-bottom overhaul that connects political decision-making to its unique social and economic reality and creates cause-and-effect accountability for those we elect to office.

Proposition 31 is akin to giving someone with a flesh-eating infection an aspirin to relieve the pain momentarily when the patient truly needs radical surgery or powerful drugs to stop the infection.

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