Debra J. Saunders

Critics of the five budget-stabilizing measures passed by the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger and placed on California's May 19 special-election ballot are right about a good many things. Before I get into why voters nonetheless should support most of the measures, let me repeat the legitimate gripes.

Proposition 1A caps spending, but also extends sales, vehicle and income tax hikes used to pass the current budget -- raising another $16 billion in taxes. The Big Five -- Schwarzenegger and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Assembly and Senate -- drafted summary language for the voter guide that does not clearly state that the spending-cap measure raises taxes.

A legislative spokesperson told me that Proposition 1A's summary doesn't mention tax increases because it "extends" this year's tax hikes -- the vehicle license fee and income tax increases for two years, as well as the extra one-cent sales tax for one year. That's a sorry way to whisper "trust us" to a disgruntled electorate.

My beef: Proposition 1A's spending cap reeks of budgeting gimmickry. It adds new formulas to a budget already shackled by too many old formulas. It's a new version of Sacto's favorite game, Move the Money Around.

Proposition 1B would require the state to make $9.3 billion in supplemental payments to K-12 schools and community colleges starting in 2011-12. Schwarzenegger and company exhort voters to go with all five budget measures in order to stabilize the budget. But unlike the other four measures, Proposition 1B can fail without requiring spending cuts or tax increases to make up the difference. It was a gift to the California teachers unions for supporting Proposition 1A.

If you are a voter who wants to send a message to Sacramento about curbing runaway spending, go ahead: Vote against it. Sacramento wants the money to go to schools anyway.

Proposition 1C, which borrows $5 billion in future lottery revenue, repeats the sort of money grab that makes it harder for lawmakers to balance future budgets. And it's hard to believe California communities will be better off if residents spend more money on the lottery.

Lump together Proposition 1D, which would redirect about $500 million in tobacco taxes, levied in a 1998 measure to fund preschool programs, into the general fund, and Proposition 1E, which would move $230 million in income taxes on the rich, raised by a 2004 measure to fund mental health services, into the general fund as well. Opponents of the measures complain that the propositions were only put on the ballot in order to win the handful of GOP votes without which no budget would have passed. That accomplished, they argue, voters may reject both measures. They have little problem with higher taxes.

I hesitate to hector California voters with the standard line that although Proposition 1A and its buddy measures are truly horrible, Sacramento will fall into the sea if they do not pass. If the five measures fail, the Capitol will survive.

Then Sacramento surely will agree on a worse way to come up with the $20 billion. I've talked to stalwart Repubs who think that if voters reject the Big Five, Sacramento will get the message and balance future budgets with cuts alone. They argue that if Schwarzenegger had reined in spending from day one, there would be no need for extra taxes. They don't notice how amazing it is that the Democratic Legislature agreed to broad taxes that every Californian -- not just businesses, or "the rich" -- will pay, instead of passing more overly progressive taxes that, because they are so volatile, have put the Golden state on a boom-and-bust rollercoaster.

They also do not notice that their party is in the minority.

Likewise, hard-core Democrats seem to think that if the five measures fail, there will be a golden age as Democratic leaders go after the requirement that two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate raise taxes.

Folks, that is not going to happen -- not when the latest Field Poll showed 58 percent of Democrats supporting the two-thirds mandate. Democrats may send big spenders to Sacramento and complain about spending reductions, but they still don't want to pay for all that stuff. They want someone else to pay -- and there aren't enough smokers and millionaires to get there.

Proposition 1D and 1E opponents complained to the Chronicle editorial board that the Legislature was stealing money from funds that exist because authors had the "courage" to ask voters to tax minority groups to fund their programs. Courage? The sponsors only won because they told most voters their programs were free -- while expanding the tax base and further tying legislators' hands. It was easy money -- so of course strapped politicians decided to steer it their way. Let this be a lesson to other interests who want to referendize -- I made up that word -- their own pot of gold.

A sixth measure, Proposition 1F, would prohibit state elected officials from receiving a pay raise when the state is facing a deficit. According to the latest Field Poll, this is the only popular measure on the May ballot. A mere 24 percent of voters oppose it. If I could figure out who they are, I would make a list and sell it.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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