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A Ballot of Facile Solutions

At a gilded moment that seems eons ago but was only mid-June, I wrote with great enthusiasm about the special election campaign then in the offing.

The campaign, I observed, was bound to be a rich source of manna for famished newspaper columnists. In contented reverie, I anticipated spending the next few months snoozing in the yard “while ripe nuggets of electoral hypocrisy fall upon me from the skies, like pellets of guano.”

I wasn’t disappointed. Who could be? In the intervening months I learned that the difficulty of ousting incompetent teachers in their 50s can be relieved by stretching out the probationary period for those in their 20s.

That the solution to the abuse of unionized government workers by the union leaders they’ve elected is to place the workers’ fates in the hands of corporate CEOs.

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That while government can’t rescue us from high prescription drug costs, the drug industry will cut prices because it cares about us. That is, as long as we remove any incentive for it to do so.

That the state budget crisis can be eliminated by giving the governor more authority, although he doesn’t know how to use the authority he has now.

Most of the initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot have something in common: They’re facile solutions to complex problems. By “facile,” by the way, I don’t mean “simple": Proposition 77, which would alter the redistricting process, has 36 provisions and runs to nearly 3,000 words. I mean they’re easily reduced to sound bites and slogans to conceal the agendas of their promoters and distract attention from their potential to unleash unintended consequences down the line.

An entire community of middlemen and moneymen has sprung up to exploit the initiative system, and this season they’ve been in full cry. As my colleague Dan Morain reported late last week, the pharmaceutical industry has seeded numerous committees and organizations with cash. The presumed purpose is to help them make up their minds in favor of Proposition 78, which establishes a porous, industry-friendly prescription discount regime, and against Proposition 79, which sets up a program that might actually hold Big Pharma’s feet to the fire.

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But it’s obvious that many organizations didn’t need special handouts to fall into line. Some of those cited in Big Pharma’s most recent pro-78 TV commercial aren’t grass-roots groups, as we are led to believe, but “AstroTurf” lobbies created specifically to mislead voters into thinking they’re broad-based patient or physician groups. Others are disease advocacy organizations already deeply beholden to the drug industry from years of donations.

Can the cycle by which half-baked ballot initiatives hobble, rather than promote, good government be broken?

The first glimmer of hope was delivered last week in Colorado. Residents statewide voted to suspend for five years the nation’s most stringent state budget cap in the country, the so-called Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. In Denver, meanwhile, residents voted themselves a $25-million annual property tax increase to fund what may be the most progressive and promising teacher incentive program in the country.

One lesson of the Colorado results may be that voters are finally waking up to a basic axiom of government -- you want services, you have to pay. The Colorado spending cap, imposed in 1992, raised the state’s rank in disposable per-capita personal income to ninth by 2002 (California is 13th), largely by reducing taxes. But the costs showed up in deteriorating public services. The state now ranks 47th in K-through-12 funding as a share of state income, dead last in child immunization rates and fifth from last in Medicaid enrollment. There is talk of privatizing the state university system and hand-wringing about the large number of road projects on the cutting block.

In the run-up to last week’s election, the received political wisdom was that Colorado voters had become too hooked on the annual refunds spun off by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to lift the cap. Americans for Tax Reform, a right-wing anti-tax outfit in Washington chaired by the egregious Grover Norquist, contributed heavily to defeat the measures. The backers of the cap (that is, the opponents of liberalization) warned of tax increases in the wings and ridiculed predictions of further service cuts if it didn’t pass.

This strategy should be familiar to all Californians. Proponents of budget caps and tax rollbacks everywhere generally make two mutually contradictory claims: The tax revenue isn’t needed, and public services can continue to be provided without raising the money for them.

Colorado’s Republican governor, as it happens, came out in favor of lifting the budget cap. That’s hardly surprising: He inherited the collapsing services that are the harvest of a dozen years of constraints. Our Republican governor, however, is still peddling the old fantasy that we can cut taxes without cutting services.

Over the next 48 hours we’ll learn whether Californians are still buying this line. More important, we’ll see if voters are coming to grips at last with the limitations of legislation by initiative. At the very least, we’ll be able to wake up Wednesday morning, after five months of nonstop misinformation and the spending of record millions of dollars, and ask: “Is it finally over?”

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You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and view his weblog at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.


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