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A Really Bad Idea ...

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiative to limit state spending carries a warm and fuzzy title, the “California Live Within Our Means Act.” Who can argue with that? Although many Californians do not live within their means, most agree the state should not spend more than it takes in. If only the ballot measure were so simple. The initiative runs 14 pages and contains a dramatic shift of power to the governor, with no legal check or balance. For those who love Arnold, though their numbers are shrinking, that might sound fine. But forever, for every governor?

Beyond that, the measure would weaken Proposition 98, the voter-approved measure guaranteeing levels of spending on public schools. Though the state’s budget problems are with the general fund, the initiative also caps special funds such as the cigarette tax, which funds no-smoking programs, and the use of college and university student fees.

Little of this is likely to be debated rationally or in any kind of detail during the campaign for a special statewide election Schwarzenegger wants to call for the fall. That’s the problem with ballot measures, and why their overuse constricts and distorts state government. Voters must take whatever language the authors of the ballot measure give them. There is no hearing process, no negotiation, no fine-tuning, no formal legal analysis, no chance of correcting an inadvertent error. Such an error was one reason that Schwarzenegger had to pull his proposed public employees pension reform initiative. The measure would have cut off disability and death benefits to police and firefighters and their survivors.

Schwarzenegger’s budget initiative was written by two board members of the committee established to support his 2005 reform program, Allan S. Zaremberg, the president of the California Chamber of Commerce, and William Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable. It has drawn praise because it is not as tough a measure as the one Schwarzenegger originally outlined, with strict across-the-board spending cuts. In some ways, however, it may be worse. Start with its being written by two people who many voters, if not the governor, would label special interests.

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The plan sets what seems like a sound limit on state spending, involving an average of revenue over the previous three years. Then it gets interesting. In the event of a relatively minor midyear dip in projected revenues, the governor could declare an emergency. If the Legislature didn’t quickly enact cuts to keep spending in line with new projections, says the measure, “the governor shall reduce

Currently, if the governor vetoes something, the Legislature can override with a two-thirds vote: a high but not impossible bar, which pushes the governor to act within reasonable bounds. Under “Live Within Our Means,” the governor could exercise any whim or impose any political vendetta.

Peel another layer: A minority party allied with the governor could sit on its hands during the emergency session, deliberately sending the emergency into the governor’s hands. Peel some more: According to the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst, the initiative also “suggests” such deliberate inaction might block the whole yearly budget. That would keep spending at the previous year’s levels but allow the governor to reduce it further, at his whim. Again, the Legislature could not override.

The analyst’s use of the word “suggests” indicates that this is a fuzzy legal area, the sort of loose end more likely to be nailed down if a proposal goes through the usual legislative process.

This is not to say that Schwarzenegger would encourage or condone vindictive cuts. But, the courts willing, this provision would be in the state Constitution presumably for generations to come. Yes, Democrats in the Legislature went on a wild spending spree during the years of the high-tech boom and, because Gov. Gray Davis failed to exercise his veto to keep spending in check, the state budget tanked when the bust came. For this, he suffered the ignominy of becoming the first California governor to be recalled from office. Schwarzenegger calls his recall victory a mandate for reform. Actually, it was a rejection of a terribly unpopular governor.

The state Constitution already gives the governor the power to reduce or veto virtually any spending item in the budget. The governor has the power to call a special session of the Legislature to deal with emergencies, fiscal or otherwise. Again, he could veto what they do, subject to an override.

What sounds like the right kind of stern medicine this year could be next year’s constitutional nightmare, something only another ballot initiative could erase.

... And Many More

Once the governor opened the gate for a special election on his plans to cap the budget, reduce employee pensions, change teacher tenure and fix legislative redistricting, the petition machine flooded in. The result is micromanaging by majority vote.

There are 70 initiative petition measures slapped on clipboards in paid hands seeking signatures at the mall and in front of your local Ralphs. They ask: What percentage of school funds should go to “direct classroom instruction”? Should personhood begin at conception? Should the state regulate oil companies? Is a usage fee just like a tax?

The whole list (see ss.ca.gov/elections/electionsj.htmcirculating) won’t make it to ballot. But enough will, either in November or June, to remind voters how overused and misused the voter initiative has become.


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