Prop. 31 seeks government reform but could backfire, critics say

SACRAMENTO — A proposal to revamp the way California handles its budget and web of state regulations is running into opposition from politicians, unions and various activists who say it would only worsen Sacramento’s dysfunction.

The wonky measure, Proposition 31, could have far-reaching effects on state government. California Forward, the nonpartisan organization behind the initiative, says its provisions would increase transparency and accountability in a Capitol not known for either.

Among the provisions of the nearly 9,000-word initiative:

• Lawmakers would be prevented from adding most new spending or making tax cuts without identifying ways to compensate for them financially.


• Budgets would last for two years instead of one, so lawmakers would have an incentive to plan ahead.

• All bills would have to be publicly available for three days before a vote, an attempt to increase scrutiny and prevent unsavory deals in the waning hours of legislative sessions.

L.A. Times 2012 voter guide

Some ideas included in the measure have run aground in the past. For example, legislation intended to increase government oversight with tracking of spending and other data was vetoed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, who called it “another siren song of budget reform.” California Forward incorporated a similar provision into Proposition 31.

Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward, said Proposition 31 is a chance to present an array of ideas to voters in one package, bypassing elected officials who aren’t interested in reform.

“The system is not going to fix itself,” he said. “This is exactly what the initiative process was created for.”

But for many opponents, the measure is an example of an initiative process run amok. They say it is, at best, another unrealistic attempt to fix California. At worst, they say, it’s a poorly drafted constitutional amendment that could have unintended and damaging consequences.

Rather than help lawmakers, the measure would make it “more difficult for them to do a better job,” said Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Assn.

One controversial provision would allow local governments to petition for exceptions to state regulations. Some opponents worry that could create loopholes in workplace or environmental protections.

“Allowing local governments to overturn such laws doesn’t make much sense,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, a coalition of unions urging members to oppose the measure.

Mayer said those concerns are overblown. The proposal would simply allow local governments to use different methods to reach the same regulatory goals, he said, and the Legislature could reject any petitions.

Proposition 31 opponents are “trying to defend a status quo that is failing the public,” Mayer said.

California Forward’s leadership includes a cross-section of political players, including Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat and former Assembly speaker. The group’s political advocacy arm placed Proposition 31 on the ballot with the help of $1.6 million from billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen.

So far it’s been a low-frequency campaign, with radio ads in the Central Valley and television spots in the Los Angeles area. Critics of the measure have placed online ads and spoken out against the initiative, but they haven’t seen a need for a multimillion-dollar opposition. Proposition 31 trails badly in the polls.

A recent Field poll said foes outnumbered supporters two to one, and more than a third of likely voters don’t know what to think of the measure. Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, said voters may be tired of tinkering with state government at the ballot box.

“The average person doesn’t have a clue about this stuff to begin with,” he said.

Assembly Budget Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills), who opposes the measure, said it wouldn’t improve state government. “The goal is to create a better system and create positive change,” Blumenfield said, “not just change for change’s sake.”