Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 21, 2009

Giving elections a bad name

I haven’t been this annoyed by a state election ballot since 2003’s gubernatorial recall election. For me, next month’s special election addressing state budget issues is giving the unfair, expensive and badly decided recall election quite a run for the top spot in the most-frustrating-election category.

Back in 2003, I wrote about my frustration with the recall election — Gov. Gray Davis wasn’t charged with any crimes in office. Instead, most voters were upset by an increase in vehicle license fees that Davis backed to help close a $38 billion state budget gap. Here we are, six years later, facing a bigger budget deficit that’s being addressed, in part, by a VLF increase supported by Davis’ replacement, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Oh, the irony.

The recall election was also frustrating because, despite a plethora of gubernatorial candidates, I couldn’t get enthused about anyone. I voted no on the recall and held my nose while voting for a replacement candidate who was so uninspiring, I don’t remember my selection. I do remember that it wasn’t Schwarzenegger.

Here I am again, trying to decide how to vote in a special election that I don’t think we should be having. We have a representative government. We elect representatives and pay them handsome salaries ($113,098/year, the highest in the country, according to Empire Center), fat per diem fees ($162/day), and health benefits to make tough decisions.

What do we get? Tardy budgets, year after year. Unrealistic budgets, year after year. Games of budget chicken played with society’s most vulnerable at stake. And now, this expensive special election because our well-compensated representatives lack the political chutzpah required to make tough choices.

Other factors are involved, of course. Those include the preposterous requirement of two-third majorities for budget passage (California is one of only three states with this provision that gives veto power to the minority party in budget matters); ballot-box budgeting that ties legislators’ hands; and gerrymandering that creates ridiculously safe legislative seats that encourage legislators to be unresponsive to constituents and responsive to lobbyists.

We just passed redistricting reform to address the last item on that list, but it will take years to see the effects. In the meantime, we have this irritating special election with no good choices.

Should I vote yes or no on Proposition 1A, an item with the most deceptive ballot language that I can recall? It will extend several taxes, but I see no mention of that in the ballot language. Instead, my sample ballot tells me that 1A will result in “higher state tax revenues” without specifying the revenue’s source.

If you’re wondering, the state sales tax increase will be extended by one year and VLF and income tax increases will be extended by two years if 1A passes.

Should I vote yes or no on Prop 1B? This ballot-box budgeting measure attempts to settle a dispute resulting from another ballot-box budgeting measure, 1998’s Prop 98. Should I vote yes or no on Measure 1C? It ties modernization of the state lottery, a good idea, to approval of borrowing against expected future lottery funds, a bad idea.

Should I vote yes or no on Prop 1C? It ties modernization of the state lottery, a good idea, to approval of borrowing against expected future lottery funds, a bad idea.

Should I vote yes or no on Prop 1D? It amends an earlier ballot-box budgeting measure (1998’s Prop 10) that directed revenue from a 50-cent-per-pack tobacco tax to First 5 by allowing the state to spend some of those funds on other health and human services programs for young children.

Should I vote yes or no on Prop 1E? It amends an earlier ballot-box budgeting measure (2004’s Prop 63) by redirecting funds from community mental health programs to a state mental health program.

At least Prop 1F is an easy yes vote. 1F prevents “elected Members of the Legislature and statewide constitutional officers, including the Governor, from receiving pay raises in years when the state is running a deficit.” Why didn’t legislators handily pass 1F-like legislation at the statehouse? Or is the fact that 1F had to be placed on a special election ballot evidence, like gerrymandering, that our state legislators have a hard time putting their constituents’ interests above their own?

I’m a voting advocate, but elections like this one give voting a bad name and legislators an even worse reputation. And that’s not good for democracy. What’s the fix? Our legislators need to do their jobs, and we voters need to hold them accountable by refusing to re-elect them when they don’t. I wonder if that’s too much to expect.

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