Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 24, 2012

Ballot-box budgeting just the beginning of California’s initiative woes

I’ve complained for years about the scourge of ballot-box budgeting — that’s when voters approve propositions that earmark government revenue for specific purposes, circumventing the normal budget process involving the state legislature.

Oakland Tribune columnist Byron Williams was exactly right when he wrote in 2006 that ballot-box budgeting “assumes a static world.” He added that ballot-box budgeting “masquerades as direct democracy, when in actuality it transforms the electorate into part-time legislators. … What was once reserved as the work of elected officials who have the benefit of hearings, staff analysis and institutional memory has been given to voters to make what is tantamount to a snap decision.”

California Statehouse from the Flickr photostream of queenkv

Thanks to ballot-box budgeting, our very expensive legislators control an ever-shrinking portion of the state’s budget. Ballot-box budgeting leaves them very little flexibility to deal with shifting economic conditions.

Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, a non-profit that focuses on public policy, research and advocacy, has this to say about ballot-box budgeting: “Nineteen percent of all initiatives proposed from 1912 to 2006 in California dealt with tax issues. Tax issues are complicated and voters are often ill informed when voting on these issues. Additionally, because the overwhelming majority of the state budget is already tied up as mandatory spending for a variety of items, measures that come with a price tag to implement can have a detrimental impact on the few things the state pays for out of its discretionary fund (i.e. higher education).”

We spend a lot of money on our legislature. According to a report prepared by the Amanda Gordon, Research Fellow for the Connecticut General Assembly, the California legislature’s “FY10 operating costs were $342,046,000,” a figure that she breaks down as follows:

  • Legislator salaries: $15,718,000
  • Staff salaries, legislator and employee benefits: $251,020,000
  • Expenses (for example, session per diem, mileage, automotive): $5,701,000
  • Operating expenses: $69,607,000

Let that sink in: We spend more than a third of a billion dollars each year to maintain a full-time, fully staffed state legislature, made up of people we expect to be experts in California’s budget. Instead of letting them do their job, we constantly insist on doing it for them, and worse, making it even more difficult for them to perform the ever-shrinking set of responsibilities remaining under their control.

It’s insane. It’s a terrible way to run any organization, let alone the government of the world’s eighth-largest economy.

But lately, I’ve realized that the problem is even broader than ballot-box budgeting: The state’s entire initiative process is broken.

Every election, Californians decide a wide variety of issues ranging from much-loathed ballot-box budgeting measures to environmental law to crime and punishment. Sometimes, competing, mutually exclusive ballot propositions appear on the same ballot. Often, we vote on the same issue election after election. We are asked by businesses to approve legislation that harms competitors or cuts their taxes.

The Greenlining Institute identifies several problems with California’s initiative process beyond the havoc wreaked by ballot-box budgeting:

  • Lack of judicial review. Some propositions are either unconstitutional or so poorly worded as to be difficult to implement.
  • High signature requirements to qualify for the ballot. These make it nearly impossible to get a prop on the ballot with volunteers only. The necessity to use expensive paid signature-gathering efforts creates an uneven playing field that favors well-heeled special interests. Others note that the short 150-day window for gathering signatures is another reason that volunteer signature-gathering efforts are usually doomed to failure.
  • Deceptive measures confuse voters. The Greenlining Institute notes that “between 2000 and 2006, 33 percent of all ballot initiatives were over 5,000 words. Voters often do not read propositions that are so long (not to mention written in technical, legalistic language), and are left to base their decisions on 30-second TV spots and other biased messages. … Some initiatives even purposefully confuse voters, where a ‘no’ vote actually enacts the new law.”

Look at the results: Thanks in no small part to the state’s broken initiative process, California in 2001 “spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria reported. “Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it’s built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.”

We have an immediate, partial fix at our disposal: Vote ‘no’ on every ballot-box budgeting measure that appears on the June and November ballots. Urge your state legislators to earn the third of a billion dollars that we spend each year on them by supporting meaningful initiative reform that addresses these serious problems.

If they don’t? Use the power of the ballot to replace them with legislators who will.

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