California’s May ballot scam

If you think Bernard Madoff is the swindler of the year, stop and consider Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature, the gang responsible for the ballot measures we’ll be voting on in May.

Let’s start with the misleading titles of their initiatives.

Take Proposition 1B. It’s called “Education Funding. Payment Plan,” but all it really does is allow the Legislature to continue stealing money from education with the promise that the state will kick in $9.3 billion to K-12 education and community colleges starting in 2011.

Or how about Proposition 1C, the “Lottery Modernization Act”? What this measure does is allow the state to borrow against future lottery money to fund this year’s budget. It also promises to improve marketing of the lottery to sell more tickets. But by its nature, the lottery places a disproportionate burden on the poor, who are more likely to buy tickets. It’s hard to see how that’s “modernization.”

Then there’s Proposition 1D, with its clunky and dishonest title: “Protects Children’s Services Funding. Helps Balance State Budget.” How does it “protect” children’s services funding? By taking $1.6 billion currently committed to children’s health services and preschool and throwing it into the budget maw.

Proposition 1E, “Mental Health Services Funding. Temporary Reallocation,” is another travesty. It simply grabs $450 million that voters specifically directed to mental health services.

The May ballot leaves me with some questions for my fellow Californians.

First, to my liberal friends: Can you really support propositions that will drastically cut services to the state’s neediest -- especially after legislators increased the state sales tax, a regressive tax that places a larger burden on the poor?

And to my conservative friends: Will you be intimidated into voting for something you know is wrong? You should be against increases in taxes, not for ideological reasons but because they will be economically disastrous for California. The rich (and I am one of them) already have their mansions, airplanes and yachts. There is nothing morally or ethically wrong with increasing their taxes. But if the burden becomes too great, the rich will simply take their money (and the taxes they pay and the jobs they create) and move elsewhere. And it is the poor who will be hurt by such an exodus.

In the 1950s, Britain increased taxes on the rich astronomically. The result was a brain and talent drain that was deeply damaging to the country.

So can I be persuaded to support the May ballot measures?

Yes, but only if the governor and Legislature take action to truly restructure government and cut costs now, not after the May vote. The pattern in California has always been that in good times we overspend rather than saving for the future. We should never allow ourselves to be in a position like this again.

The Legislature needs to immediately move to contain costs by combining duplicative departments in the state government. The state also needs to stop telling local governments how to spend their money, and to eliminate all the anti-business rules and laws that are scaring companies out of California.

We can save billions of dollars by restructuring education, healthcare and other services. Healthcare must be revamped, and the state should study the lessons of Kaiser Permanente and the Veterans Administration, which have managed to contain costs and provide excellent preventive care. Changes to entrenched programs will always be opposed by special-interests groups, but elected leaders have a responsibility to stand up to them.

Education costs can be reduced substantially over time by giving all schools the same powers that charter schools have to control their destinies. Control needs to be taken away from bureaucrats and unions, so that teachers are allowed to teach and principals are allowed to lead. And if educators aren’t capable, we need simple mechanisms to get rid of them.

It now appears that the budget fix the Legislature is proposing won’t even fill the gap, which could be as much as $8 billion more than was anticipated. Rather than coming up with another Houdini magic trick, lawmakers need to get to work now cutting costs and restructuring government, not just for the year but forever. They also need to plan for what they’ll do if the May ballot measures fail.

It’s time for our leaders to wake up and pay attention to the needs of Californians rather than to those of the special-interest groups that got them elected.

Richard Riordan is the former mayor of Los Angeles.