Paul Jacob

California’s a financial mess.

Everybody knows that something really bad is happening to the state government of California. The state quickly stumbles towards insolvency. When a government cannot pay its bills, then something people have been taught to trust becomes untrustworthy. Inescapably untrustworthy. And that’s about as bad as it gets, short of thugs taking control and setting up an old-fashioned tyranny.

A lot of politicians and insiders and hangers-on have blamed democracy for all this. They claim it’s the voters’ fault. The “usual suspects” get rounded up at every blow of the whistle, with the efficiency of Claude Rains’s Captain Renault.

The usual suspects are innocent:

Don’t blame initiative and referendum. Those few initiatives that have required that certain moneys be spent, have required only a drop in the bucket of the state’s deficit spending. Legislators in Sacramento, not voters at the ballot box, are the big spenders.

As Professor John G. Matsusaka (University of Southern California), president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, noted in a 2003 analysis of the impact of the California initiative process on state government budgeting, “[w]ithout Prop. 98, only 2 percent of the budget is locked in by initiatives, a small number in anyone’s book.”

On the other hand, Proposition 98, passed in 1988, sets a minimum level of state government spending on K-14 education. Initiative opponents have jumped on this mandated spending as a sign of profligate voter behavior. But as Matsusaka points out, most of the money “committed to education by Prop. 98 would have been appropriated even without the initiative.” Unless legislators were looking to lower education funding below levels common for the last 20 years, Prop 98 has actually had little if any effect on education spending.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.