Proposition 31 is a little like the dreamy stranger glimpsed across a crowded room — alluring, exciting, all promise and possibility — who is revealed on closer inspection to be an unbalanced and dangerous monster. Is it a bad date, or just a Halloween movie? It’s a real-life constitutional amendment, outwardly attractive but inside an absolute mess. California voters should run.
The budget and government reform measure was assembled by California Forward, a bipartisan group that has done, and we can hope is likely to again do, some serious thinking and planning to help the state emerge from its organizational chaos and seemingly perpetual fiscal crisis. It was drawn up to answer some of California’s real problems and it proposes some of the right conceptual fixes: performance-based budgeting; strategic planning; local control; real legislative oversight of the state bureaucracy. And some controversial but intriguing innovations: a two-year budget cycle; a limitation on what state government can do without first demonstrating it has the revenue to do it; executive power to slash the budget when revenues come up short.
While the concepts may be right, however, the details are half-baked. Proposition 31 simply fails to deliver on its lofty goals and in some cases may make things worse. It is too broad, too shallow and, importantly, for a measure that adds new language to the state Constitution, too inflexible.
Start with the provisions apparently intended to return power to cities, counties and other local governmental agencies. Over the last 35 years, local voters and the representatives they elect have found themselves with decreasing power to improve their communities and their quality of life as Sacramento pulls more strings and takes over responsibility for more funding. The shift was set in motion in the months after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, as the state began to bail out school districts and cities that found themselves without the property tax revenue they needed to fulfill their accustomed functions. With state money came rules and regulations on how to spend it. A shift back in the other direction is overdue.
But Proposition 31’s proposal for changing the system is woefully misguided. If the measure were passed, cities, counties and other local governments would be able to pool their tax revenue and spend it with less direction from Sacramento, and that may be fine, as far as it goes. But those same governments, alone or through regional compacts, would also be authorized to ignore state regulations and substitute their own. Which regulations? Proponents insist that, for example, key environmental requirements such as those that protect the coast would be unaffected, but the language of the measure is unclear.
Who would decide whether local proposals are more suitable and effective than state regulations? Who would decide whether the regulatory areas are within local governments’ power to alter? They would — or more likely the courts, where many of the alternative programs would end up as litigants fought over whether each new local rule was properly a “functional equivalent” of a state regulation. The Legislature’s power to block such action would be severely limited.
In the meantime, California would end up with a patchwork of constantly shifting rules varying from one region to another, each drafted by local officials with little expertise, instead of environmental, land-use or administrative regulations that apply statewide after having been the subject of public hearing, open debate, drafting, discussion and redrafting. This is not a prescription for cutting through regulatory morass. It’s a program for worsening it.
Another idea that at first mention sounds great — blocking lawmakers from spending money they don’t have — is poorly fleshed out. There is indeed a problem, in that the Legislature regularly turns unexpected one-time revenue into new ongoing programs or permanent tax cuts that the state cannot afford. But Proposition 31 simply fails to deal with the big-ticket items: bond measures, which add new annual payment obligations, and voter initiatives, which routinely impose new costs without identifying new revenue. Lawmakers thus would have a new incentive to rely ever more often on bonds and the ballot box — to the state’s fiscal detriment.
Proposition 31 would upset the balance of power in Sacramento in favor of the governor, who would get sweeping new authority to impose selective midyear budget cuts if expected revenues failed to materialize. Lawmakers’ ability to perform their chief function — to adopt a budget — would be severely limited. In a reform proposal that purports to focus the Legislature more than ever on oversight, lawmakers’ most fundamental oversight — approval of the spending plan — would be gutted.
Some of the more appealing-sounding parts of the measure are, on reflection, less than they seem. How can the state manage a two-year budget if finance officials can’t even accurately predict how much revenue it gets in a single year?
Proposition 31 is a grab bag of interesting ideas that could have some merit if they were subjected to regular public vetting and legislative scrutiny. But because this proposed constitutional amendment comes in the form of a voter initiative, there were no open hearings and limited review in the drafting process. Even that could be tolerable if the measure included provisions for legislative review and revision if a year or two of experience were to reveal flaws or spotlight improvements.
But the measure includes no such flexibility because it could only be revised by another vote of the people. Thus, it exemplifies one of California’s enduring problems — the ballot proposition that engrafts layers of inflexible detail into the state Constitution. That’s unfortunate and ironic, because California Forward’s focus had been, and should be, on fixing precisely this kind of ballot-box constitutionalizing. Voters should resist the outward attraction of Proposition 31 and insist instead on workable budget and governmental fixes.