California voters routinely use the ballot box to approve big spending on big things -- canals and superhighways, light-rail systems, levees and social programs.
Now, with the state struggling financially, they’re being asked to do some ballot box demolition.
State lawmakers fighting to escape a riptide of budgetary red ink have two propositions on the May 19 special election ballot that would yank more than $2 billion from a pair of popular programs that help some of the state’s most vulnerable: young children and the mentally ill.
Both programs were approved by voters over the last decade. Now lawmakers want to take that money away to help balance the books.
“I don’t recall anything like this before,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic political consultant. “We’re asking for a do-over. We’re saying give back the money.”
But the measures, Propositions 1D and 1E, also represent ballot-box budgeting coming back to haunt the California electorate.
Though they often complain that statehouse lawmakers spend like drunken sailors, the state’s voters have in recent decades repeatedly performed in much the same manner. Time and again they have approved propositions that critics say have combined to straitjacket the state’s budgetary process.
“The voters have been as responsible for this budget mess as anyone else,” said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor. “Election after election they have authorized money for this or that. And it ties the hands of the Legislature at budget time.”
Californians have rarely shied away from funding public infrastructure projects -- and the state’s annual debt to pay back money borrowed to build things has soared to 6% of the budget.
The Golden State’s long-running budget travails -- the latest is a projected $8-billion deficit heading into next fiscal year -- have conspired to make California’s bond rating on Wall Street the worst among all 50 states.
Meanwhile, the last 30 years have seen voters approve two dozen ballot measures telling lawmakers how to spend money. Gas taxes for transportation projects. Tobacco taxes for healthcare. Funding guarantees for education and after-school programs.
Two of the hardest-fought measures of recent years now stand to be retro-engineered if voters approve Propositions 1D and 1E next month.
In 1998, Hollywood actor and filmmaker Rob Reiner championed the California Children and Families First Act, which put a 50-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes to fund an early childhood development program.
Reiner’s ballot measure, Proposition 10, overcame well-financed opposition by the tobacco industry to gain a narrow victory.
Proposition 1D would shift nearly $1.7 billion over the next five years -- about 70% of the cigarette tax’s revenue during that period -- to help balance the state general fund.
Proposition 1E, meanwhile, would siphon money from mental health programs financed under a 2004 ballot measure, Proposition 63, which put an extra 1% tax on personal income over $1 million. That measure, pushed by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), garnered a victory with 54% of the votes.
Under 1E, about $460 million over the next two years -- roughly a quarter of the extra income tax’s revenue during that time -- would be diverted to help balance the state’s books.
The early childhood and mental health programs became prime targets for budget negotiators working to solve the state’s $42-billion deficit. They were sporting a budget surplus of about $2.5 billion each at a time when health and welfare programs funded the old-fashioned way -- through the state’s general fund appropriations -- were being stripped.
Backers say those surpluses were a fiscal mirage, because the money had been committed to future programs or was being saved for tough times.
Meanwhile, the two chief proponents have come down on starkly different sides.
Steinberg helped put together the February budget deal that put 1D and 1E on the ballot.
Reiner thinks it’s another sign of the decline of governance in the California Republic.
“It’s unbelievably shortsighted on their part,” Reiner said. “These programs are designed to save money for the state -- to put children on the right path so they’re not a drain on the system.”
Reiner said he never would have pushed his original proposition if the Legislature had performed its job in the first place.
“The reason you have all these initiatives is you can’t get anything done in Sacramento,” he said. “That’s why you have people like me stepping up. But I don’t think it’s the best way to govern.”
Steinberg, meanwhile, has become one of the most eloquent boosters of Propositions 1D and 1E. The campaign has pitted him against friends from the fight for mental health programs.
But with the global economic crisis and California fighting to overcome a deep deficit, Steinberg contends that sacrifices needed to be made on all fronts -- including his own pet program.
Though admitting to being “conflicted,” Steinberg said he felt compelled to “lead by example.” He also said money diverted from each of the programs would mostly go toward similar efforts for children and the mentally ill -- it would just pass through the general fund.
“This doesn’t undo anything,” Steinberg said, describing it as a “temporary sacrifice” and expressing confidence that both programs would survive and ultimately “recover well.”
Others aren’t so sure.
Dave Fratello, a Manhattan Beach political consultant leading the fight against the two ballot measures, said he worries that approval of 1D and 1E would throw open the gates to future raids by lawmakers grappling to balance budgets.
“If we lose this election,” he said, “it’s just a small step toward undoing these.”
But some experts say a bit of deconstruction seems inevitable given the surplus of initiatives by special interests eager to practice ballot-box funding.
“Frankly, the fact we’re going back at a few of these isn’t surprising to me,” said Timothy A. Hodson, executive director at Sacramento State’s Center for California Studies. “I’m just surprised it has taken this long.”