Oct 282010
California State Capital in Sacramento
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With less than a week until the midterm election, here’s the final installment of my Voter’s Guide for the propositions. I’ll give you my take on the final three propositions and share my reasoning.

Proposition 25: Changes legislative vote requirement to pass budget and budget-related legislation.

Present California law requires that the state legislature submit a budget to the governor each year by June 15. For reasons not pertinent to this discussion, the law also requires a two-thirds majority of both houses for passage of the budget. Proposition 25 will reduce this requirement to a simple majority. It also ensures that legislators will no longer be paid retroactively for monies withheld while the state operates without a budget.

Of issue on this matter is the state legislature’s abysmal record on budget passage. Since 1980, the legislature has met its June 15 deadline only 5 times. And the current fiscal year continues the pattern, marking the ninetieth time in the last 25 years that the state started the fiscal year without a budget.

Proponents of the initiative claim that late budgets cost taxpayers millions of dollars, hurt schools and services, and damage California’s credit rating. They cite the fact that, without an approved budget, teachers must be handed pink slips and small businesses and state workers given IOUs. Projects are also shutdown and services delayed, which adds additional cost increases with restarts and further damages the state’s credit rating.

Proposition opponents assert that Prop-25 is a backdoor means for legislators to spend more money.  They claim that the circumvention of the two-thirds majority will result in politicians raising taxes. They even assert that the measure will somehow “eliminate the right of voters to use the referendum to force a vote and stop taxes disguised as fees.”

A reading of the text of the proposition seems to reveal that the argument against Prop-25 is nothing more than scare tactics designed to get voters to reject the measure. The initiative in no way changes the two-thirds majority requirement for tax increases. In fact, it specifically states that the two-third requirement to raise taxes is to be retained. Likewise, the proposition is devoid of any language to repeal citizen’s rights to vote.

Proposition 25 promises to end the budget gridlock in Sacramento and hold legislators responsible for passing timely budgets. It will retain the existing super-majority requirement for tax increases and dock legislators pay if they fail to perform as directed. This is long awaited reform that brings California into line with the other 47 states that only require a simple majority for budget passage. Voters need to say NO to scare tactics and vote Yes on Prop-25.

Proposition 26: Requires that certain state and local fees be approved by two-thirds vote.

This initiative is all about making it more difficult for the legislature to increase revenues. Current California law allows the legislature to raise “fees” with a simple majority vote but requires a two-thirds super majority for tax increases.  Prop-26 will broaden the definition of what constitutes a tax and render many payments that are currently considered fees to be taxes.

The fees affected by the initiative are those that “benefit the public broadly,” which mostly means those used to address health, environment, social and economic concerns. Oil recycling and hazardous waste fees fall into this group, as do certain fees on alcohol retailers.

Proponents of Prop-26 promote the initiative as a means to stop politicians from “enacting hidden taxes.” This claim is based on a blurring of the distinction between taxes and fees and a conclusion that raising fees with a simple majority is equivalent to raising taxes.

While there is a basis of truth in this claim, it fails to recognize that taxes are typically applied in a more broad sense where fees are levied for very specific circumstances. Many of the fees in question are those associated with ensuring that polluters pick up their own tab. One example of this is a so-called Prop-26 “hidden tax” that is levied against oil companies in order to cover the costs of oil spill cleanup. Other examples are fees on polluters for cleanup of hazardous waste and fees on tobacco companies for the adverse affects of tobacco.

The truth is that the major proponents of Prop-26 are the oil, tobacco and alcohol companies who pay the fees in question. These companies, including Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Phillip Morris have funded virtually the entire campaign for Prop-26.

Smart voters will not allow these deep-pocketed polluters to pass their tab to the taxpayers. A vote against Prop-26 will ensure that vital health and environmental services are not robbed and that the companies that pollute continue to pay for their own way.

Proposition 27: Eliminates state commission on redistricting.

Prop-27 is the polar opposite of Prop-20. Where 20 seeks to expand the authority of the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) to include control of congressional districts, Prop-27 completely eliminates the Commission and returns authority for the redistricting of both state and federal districts to the state legislature.

So, the decision for California voters is as follows: vote Yes-on-20 and No-on-27, which will put all authority in the CRC; vote No-on-20 and Yes-on-27, placing the state legislature in control, or vote NO on both propositions, thereby maintaining the present split authority.

Prop-27 does include certain provisions that require the legislature to hold public hearings both before and after they create redistricting maps — a measure that could help limit gerrymandering. The initiative also requires that all districts be essentially equivalent in size. These are positive moves, but neither of these measures, nor the small savings in redistricting costs, represents sufficient cause to support the proposition.

As with Prop-20, the decision is really about the best way to address the issues surrounding an ineffective legislature and the predominance of incumbent reelection. And in the end, there’s really no proof that an independent commission will improve this situation in any way. A redistricting bureaucracy that answers to nobody is a recipe for perpetuation of the problem — it’s another Band-Aid that will only create an appearance of change while leaving the broken system intact.

There are far more effective measures that we can take. If we’re serious about effective change and holding politicians accountable, we need to move in the direction of public campaign finance, preferential voting and term limits. The problem isn’t that state legislators serve their own best interest; it’s that California voters allow them to. If you don’t like what the legislature does — you can vote them out. We need structural change in Sacramento, not another bureaucracy. We need to empower the legislature and then hold them accountable — vote YES on Prop-27.

So, there you have it — Dave’s entire $0.02 on the California propositions — paid in full.

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