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The ailing patient is us; the causes and symptoms are many

It’s too early for a postmortem. After all, the body’s only comatose.

But any ultimate dissecting should be easy. It won’t be brain surgery.

The critically ill budget propositions on the May 19 special election ballot show symptoms of an incapacitated Capitol.

It’s not an affliction picked up from just one source, but a disorder acquired over time from many ailments. Some wounds are self-inflicted. Other maladies come from millions of bugs, or voters.

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As Pogo observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

More on that later.

First, results released Wednesday from a statewide survey of the nonpartisan Field Poll: It shows that among five budget-fix measures, four are being supported by only 40% of likely voters. The fifth -- Proposition 1C, allowing the state to borrow $5 billion against future lottery revenue -- is garnering only 32% support.

At this stage of a campaign, a prop normally should be receiving at least 50% support to have a good shot at winning.

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The one measure attracting voters is Prop. 1F, which would bar legislators and other elected state officials from collecting pay raises when the state faces a deficit. That was a throwaway tossed onto the ballot, partly, as a loss-leader to draw voters to the entire package. But it alone is popular, showing 71% in support.

And that highlights one self-inflicted wound: the awkward effort by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s strategists to run all six proposals as a single package. “Yes on Props 1A-1B-1C. . . . " Each of these measures involves separate issues. Voters are used to picking and choosing.

When they do lump everything together, the tendency is to vote “no” on the whole bunch. That’s what half the Republicans are planning to do on May 1, the Field Poll found.

Voters clearly see this as a “send ‘em a message” election.

Poll director Mark DiCamillo says it reminds him of 1994 and Prop. 187. That measure would have barred illegal immigrants from most government services, including education. He recalls: “70% of people agreed it would be ruled unconstitutional and thrown out by the courts. But they wanted to send a message that they’d had enough of illegal immigrants.”

Prop. 187 passed with 59% of the vote and was tossed out by the federal judiciary.

In the new poll, people were asked whether they thought that if the props failed, “it would make the state’s budget problems even worse.” More agreed than not (47% to 41%). But it didn’t matter to many.

The props’ rejection would send a message to Sacramento “that voters are tired of more government spending and higher taxes,” 72% said.

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Moreover, the pollster surmises, people are “tired of voting, tired of observing the politicians’ gyrations and their passing on decisions to the voters. It ends up on the voters’ plate, and they’re going to throw it back.

“They’re just down on all of these guys not doing their jobs.”

There is another self-inflicted wound here: After Schwarzenegger’s 2005 special election debacle, when Democrats clobbered him and his “reforms,” both sides should have known better than to call another special election for budget “reforms.” Somehow, they should have made do until next year’s regular elections.

But I suspect the governor was trying to cram in as many “reforms” as he could before leaving office at the end of 2010.

That said, if people really are “tired of voting,” they asked for it. And legislators can’t “do their jobs” -- the big jobs, anyway -- because voters have bound them in straitjackets, sometimes during previous “message” elections.

Start with the two-thirds majority vote requirement for passage of budgets and tax increases. That makes California practically ungovernable as it becomes more complex, diverse and polarized. Let the majority party govern and pay the price if it screws up!

It was like a scene from “Alice in Wonderland” watching delegates to the Democratic state convention Sunday debating the ballot props. They denounced the measures’ spending controls and cuts in children’s and mental health programs as if oblivious to growing deficits and political reality.

Speaker after speaker assailed Democratic lawmakers for submitting to Republican “terrorism” and allowing themselves to be “held hostage.” After all, Democrats are the majority party, delegates shouted.

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Sure, but it’s a majority party trying to work within a supermajority system. And that means hardly anything works at all.

Add in term limits, which have robbed the Capitol of the experienced legislators who no doubt would have had better sense than to craft a ballot package that offends both ideological wings. Certainly they wouldn’t have fed a “poison pill” to the package’s heart: Prop. 1A’s spending cap and rainy-day reserve. That “poison pill” is a separate bill that extends tax hikes for two years if 1A passes.

Ironically -- because Republican voters are the ones most opposed to the props -- it was GOP leaders who insisted on both the spending cap and tax linkage. It also was their idea to take money from childhood and mental health programs (Props. 1D and 1E).

But why did the Legislature dump all these decisions on the voters? Because the voters insisted on it in previous elections. Not one of the six props could have been enacted by the governor and Legislature themselves. They all would amend earlier ballot measures -- mostly citizen initiatives -- that require voter approval for significant tampering.

And this is a lousy time for Sacramento politicians to be asking for permission to tamper. Their job ratings -- and credibility -- are hovering at all-time lows.

The California body politic is sick. And this ballot package probably was DOA from the get-go.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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