May 19 Special Election: Don’t Listen to the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times came out with its endorsements on the May 19 special election. Unfortunately, their decision-making is a little baffling. With regards to Proposition 1A, they see the problem (one I have called government by algorithm) and then draw a truly strange conclusion:

The reserve fund is closely linked to the spending cap, and that gives us pause, because The Times has long objected to hands-free budgeting — decision-making that removes human thinking from the fiscal planning process. But after several decades’ worth of ballot measures that impose formulas to grab cash for education and other favored programs, California finds itself so far down the robo-budgeting road that it may need a bit more automation just to regain its bearings [emphasis added].

I disagree – strongly. Beyond being anti-democratic (with a small ‘d’), more “robo-budgeting” makes the legislature even less accountable to voters. The only way to restore balance to the budgeting process is to make the legislature more accountable to voters. Currently, for example, the 2/3rds rule prevents true accountability because no single party gets the blame or credit for the debacle. Republicans point to the Democratic majority and say “don’t blame us”, while the reverse is equally true. This cultivates a throw-the-bums-out mentality that makes the entire process more toxic and discourages innovation and true reform. The spending cap will complicate this issue. The Times would be better served by opposing Prop 1A and calling for systematic budget process reform, including both the repeal of outstanding robo-budgeting propositions and the 2/3rds rule.

Additionally, the Times completely ignores the increased power given to the Governor to mandate cuts in lean years – a step that further reduces legislative accountability and further distrupts an already unequal balance of powers in Sacramento.

The Times then moves on to Prop 1B, and draws this conclusion:

It’s ostensibly intended to restore $9.3 billion in funding that public schools and community colleges would get in better economic times under Proposition 98 (the granddaddy of ballot-box budgeting measures, passed in 1988 as an attempt to ensure adequate school funding). But in doing so, it could ratchet up the autopilot spending that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he’s trying to stop. We support better funding for schools, but not by imposing more inflexible formulas [emphasis added].

And yet this is precisely what proposition 1A does! Honestly, their reasoning is not internally consistent. Instead, I suspect they honestly oppose robo-budgeting, but want to appear to be part of the “responsible center” – hence their endorsement of proposition 1A.

The rest of the editorial is more-or-less what you would expect, and, honestly, I don’t care all that much about the remaining propositions. However, on Prop 1C, they make another inconsistent argument. Namely, that it will raise revenue without raising taxes. What it will actually do it raise revenue now at the cost of decreased revenue in the future. Fewer cuts or tax increases now at the cost of cuts or tax increases in the future. This is, of course, exactly what the state does when it borrows, but given declining lottery revenues due to the economy, I’m not so certain we’ll be able to sell its future revenues for nearly as much as the governor things we can. This is not a wise or responsible path.

For a more complete discussion of my opinions on the ballot measures, see this post here. Also take a look at the Calitics endorsements (hint: we more-or-less agree) and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, who have a very good discussion.

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