The martial art of subduing special interests

Passing a major reform in Sacramento has the same odds as a novice knocking out the champ at a martial-arts competition. This is particularly true when it comes to reforming ballot-box budgeting. I’ve introduced eight measures on this topic over the past 2 1/2 years, and people often ask me why I bother. Changes to the status quo are long shots that require heavy lifting. Complex constitutional amendments are not easily explained in sound bites. And many of these bills don’t exactly ingratiate a legislator with special interests. I always respond that I am lucky enough to have been made to see the big picture, and that the big picture imparts in me a sense of martial duty.

When I first ran for state Assembly, I sought the endorsement of former Speaker Robert Hertzberg, whose encyclopedic knowledge of our government and involvement in various reform groups made him a prime candidate to teach this karate kid a thing or two. In true Mr. Miyagi fashion, he wanted some wax-on, wax-off. “You can’t have my endorsement until I know you’re prepared for the monumental task before you. And you cannot be prepared until you’ve studied the roots of California’s problems.”

Undaunted, I humbly left his office and began my quest. I read everything I could, whether he’d suggested it or not: California histories, Legislative Analyst Office reports, think-tank studies and more. After months of study, I was ready to spar. At our next meeting, I was able to thoroughly discuss the big picture with Hertzberg. The good news? I received his endorsement and won my race. The bad news? I’ve remained acutely aware of the need for reform, and troubled by the general inaction to achieve it.

Buried in the documents I studied were disturbing facts about the scope and harmful effects of ballot-box budgeting. Unfunded program spending from ballot initiatives costs California at least $8.6 billion each year, and special funds created by ballot initiatives soak up an additional $2 billion taxpayer dollars each year. This is nuts.

I believe those funds should be spent on the core functions of government: Paving roads, improving our education system, keeping courts open so lawsuits don’t drag on for years, and making sure someone promptly responds when you dial 911. Ballot-box budgeting for special interests’ pet projects siphons resources away from these core functions. And when government cannot perform its core functions adequately, people lose faith. That is why I have tried mightily to reform our system.

In 2011, I introduced ACA 6, a simple measure that said an initiative could not create a new program without first identifying how it would pay for it. Special interests shouldn’t be allowed to enshrine a new spending program without telling the voters exactly how they will find the money to fund it. I introduced AB 65, which would print the top five financial supporters of an initiative in our ballot pamphlets. Following the money is the easiest way to know who will benefit from a measure. And I introduced ACA 10, which would make it harder to add junk to our constitution but ensure that reformers can still remove junk. The federal constitution has been amended just 27 times in 225 years. California’s has been amended 521 times in less than half that period, a major cause of the state’s dysfunction.

I am heartened to see so many newcomers echoing the calls for reform, now that Democrats have a two-thirds majority in the Legislature. Although my proposals and others are far from partisan, I, too, hope that party unity gives reformers a better chance of winning hearts and votes, even if the clear need for reform previously did not. I also believe that Republican leaders would be wise to join reform efforts, instead of blocking them because the author happens to be a Democrat. After all, fiscal responsibility used to be what Republicans campaigned on, and protecting our state constitution from special interests should appeal to all patriots.

Will this year be the one where the karate kids finally defeat the special-interest champs? I will continue pushing for these important reforms this session. If you think reforming ballot-box budgeting is important, I encourage you to write your state representatives and tell them to do something about it.

MIKE GATTO (D-Silver Lake) is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the state Assembly. He represents the cities of Burbank, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose, the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Atwater Village, and portions of the Hollywood Hills and East Hollywood.

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