Mac Taylor, California’s prop master
Whoever it was who coined “Lies, damn lies and statistics” didn’t trust numbers. You won’t find Mac Taylor subscribing to that. He’s the state legislative analyst; his name is there in your ballot pamphlet as the source of independent information about ballot measures and their potential cost to taxpayers. He’s had the top job in that office for four years, but the California native joined the effort, fresh from Princeton with a master’s degree in public affairs, the same year Jerry Brown was elected governor — the first time. He presides over the fiscal Google of Sacramento, a calm think tank in the shark tank of the Legislature’s partisan passions.
Why was this office created, in 1941?
I think the Legislature was tired of being dependent on the administration for information. The governor vetoed it. I guess he didn’t want any competition. So they set it up through a resolution and later it was put into statute.
We were the first office in the country like this. [The Congressional Budget Office was formed] in 1974. There’s a big difference between the CBO and our office: They don’t make recommendations. We are specifically authorized to make recommendations on the effectiveness and efficiency of governmental operations.
And you also analyze the ballot propositions.
When I came to the office in ’78, we had just been given that responsibility. These are issues with great consequence, and we take it very seriously. We try to meet with the proponents and the opponents [before and] after it qualifies. We’ll take any sort of reports anyone wants to give us. We can analyze over 100 initiative measures a year. We do the fiscal analysis before they are circulated [for signatures]. If the initiative qualifies, we do the whole analysis. We say: If you pass this, this is what it would do. In many cases the fiscal impact may not be as important as how it could change the way businesses operate, what information is available to consumers.
Do voters fully understand the impact of their votes? For instance, the way initiatives may tie Sacramento’s hands, creating ballot-box budgeting?
In fairness to the voters, they’re not given a whole array of choices. It’s not like they’re in the legislative process and can say, well, we can add this provision or take this one out. A ballot measure is either up or down. The only choices [they’ve] been given are to pass this tax or [to] spend money or [set up] this program or change the way we regulate. It’s that, or nothing at all. Do they sometimes not take into account factors we would like them to? Sure, but that happens in [the Legislature] also. I tend to cut voters a lot of slack on these things. The ballot is filled with complicated, important issues. It’s a lot of work for voters.
Why have there been only five legislative analysts in more than 70 years?
It’s a tribute to the Legislature that even if they might be upset with a particular recommendation or finding, they haven’t intervened. They’ve left the analyst to serve. You can feel comfortable that if you put out a particular report or say something that upsets a particular member or leader, that that’s not going to endanger your job.
You’ve been working there for 34 years.
I was on the East Coast. I accepted the job [just] before [Proposition 13] passed. They were talking about these huge reductions in government spending, so I was wondering whether I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.
An undergrad classmate of yours at UC Riverside described you as “dispassionate’’ even then.
That’s probably fair to say. I wasn’t as interested in politics and campaigns as I was in public policy. We all have our biases, but I was attracted more to the dispassionate way of looking at problems and issues.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. That’s not always a given in this partisan climate.
One thing you discover in public policy is that in many areas there’s not a lot of great information, so there can be dispute about the facts. But I wish we spent more time focusing on where we can find some agreement about the problem. If you view everything through a highly partisan lens, you’re not likely to get very far in finding where you might agree.
Does one side or the other accuse your office of bias?
Obviously it can be sensitive; when you make recommendations, you can offend people on both sides of the aisle. Anybody can critique what we say; that’s fair game. [But if we responded specifically to those who argue with the numbers] we would basically be spending all of our time responding to people who in my view have misused or misstated information. We just try to keep focused on our job and not worry too much about those things.
How has the job changed?
Our basic mission hasn’t changed. The way we communicate with people has. Having the Internet to get our information out — [the people] have as easy access to our information in many ways as a [legislator] does.
But you no longer analyze every bill with a fiscal impact?
We stopped doing that about 20 years ago, after Proposition 140 was passed and the budgets for the Legislature were reduced. We do recommendations primarily on the government’s budget proposals, but we can make recommendations on anything.
What are the myths about your office?
I don’t know about myths, but what I’m most concerned about is when mostly new members come to Sacramento, they’ve been involved in very partisan races and they may not understand our office’s [role]. Even though there’s a Democratic majority, we work for both parties in both houses. I worry that they don’t appreciate that the nonpartisan, independent role we’ve been given by the Legislature is a reality.
The public and politicians often analyze Sacramento with the words ''waste, fraud and abuse.’'
I’ve never liked that phrase because there’s really not a lot of fraud, outright stealing money or misrepresenting. There is the aspect of waste, and we need to be more nuanced about that. In some cases you have programs that some folks feel achieve something positive but don’t feel is being administered as effectively as it could be. Now, is that waste? It may be inefficiency. It may be that the government could operate better.
Once you [tell] folks that Sacramento actually passes most of its budget back down to local governments, they can still [think] we [could]spend our money more effectively but hopefully we can get away from the “waste, fraud and abuse” concept.
How have term limits affected your job?
It surely does change the kind of assistance we provide to members, because there’s so many new ones, and new staff. We spend a lot of time providing basic information about the way programs work. If you have members who have been around longer, you can take [the discussion] to a different level of what the problems are and the best ways to address them.
A New York Times story about the California budget process called you “the adult in the room.”
I hate when they say something like that. We don’t have to deal with the problems of getting 51% of a vote on a measure. We don’t have to deal with all the really hard stuff of governing, so I think it was kind of an unfair description. There are lots of adults in the room. We’ve just been given this unique job.
Is the job harder with budget constraints, or is it just red ink instead of black?
The last four years we’ve been on nonstop budgeting, year-round budgeting. It’s been a pretty tough four years.
Do you have counterparts in other states?
Most states have something similar. I was talking with my counterpart from Wisconsin. Can you imagine what he went through with what Wisconsin did in these changes in collective bargaining, and people walking out, and mobs of people [at] the Capitol for a long time? Based on experiences he related to me, I didn’t envy what he went through.
What’s your advice for voters as they approach the ballot?
That’s a tough one. Just looking through the ballot, I sometimes get a little overwhelmed. Do I expect people to spend three or four hours on each [measure]? That’s probably what you’d need if you wanted to have a really informed vote. That’s why people look for shortcuts. They look at who’s supporting it, who’s against it, and I don’t think that’s always the best way to do it, because there’s a lot of money being spent, [and] how much money is being spent doesn’t necessarily speak to the policy-worthiness of it. You listen, and you try to triangulate.
How do you get your head out of numbers, or numbers out of your head?
When I go home at night, I’m ready to pick up some book of fiction or watch a TV show. I like mystery and crime novels because they’re good stories and so different from what [I] do during the day.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.