Voters Are Not to Blame for California’s Fiscal Mess

I was frustrated as I watched CNN’s coverage on Tuesday of California’s special election. The slant of the coverage was: “What will California do if voters don’t pass the budget reform measures?” This is misleading because it relies on three false premises:

  1. The measures really would have solved the state’s budget problems. (They wouldn’t. The state was projected to have at least an $8 billion budget gap even if the measures passed, and the measures themselves did not contain any real structural reforms that would have prevented the same thing from happening next year–or sooner.)
  2. The measures represented the only viable reforms available to fix the budget. (Numerous other reforms would go much further to addressing the state’s short- and long-term fiscal issues. These include adopting a performance-based budgeting process; outsourcing services to the private sector; reducing the state’s work force and retirement benefits for future employees to bring compensation in line with that of the private sector; eliminating unnecessary boards and commissions; consolidating duplicative government functions; selling off unnecessary state assets such as golf courses, sports stadiums, fairgrounds, and the MTV beach house in Malibu–which Gov. Schwarzenegger finally proposed recently; cutting the education bureaucracy; eliminating waste and fraud in health and social service programs; reducing taxes and regulations; and imposing a real spending/revenue cap, just to name a few.)
  3. Voters are to blame for the state’s financial situation if they do not pass the ballot measures. (It is offensive to blame voters for the current situation just because they do not sanction the governor’s and the legislature’s irresponsible spending habits or bail them out by agreeing to massive tax increases. Voters do bear some responsibility for approving certain “ballot-box budgeting” measures in the past, particularly Proposition 98’s education funding formulas in 1988, but this is peanuts compared to the Legislature’s profligacy and lack of prudent fiscal planning.)

On this last point, the San Diego Union-Tribune had a great editorial today debunking the notion that voters are at fault for the state’s fiscal crisis. As the U-T editorial asserts,

[I]t wasn’t voters who decided to increase the number of state government and public school jobs paid for by taxpayers from 719,000 in 1997 to 895,000 in 2007 — an additional 176,000 employees. That translates into 48 added jobs a day every day for 10 years.

It wasn’t voters who changed laws to allow public employees to retire with extravagant pensions equal to 90 percent of their final pay — without resolving how to pay the eventual tab.

It wasn’t voters who approved a 37 percent pay hike for prison guards and bizarre, unprecedented concessions to the guards that gave them a management say in Corrections Department decisions — helping make California prisons more than twice as expensive per-inmate than Florida’s.

It wasn’t voters who refused to look at ways to relieve costly overcrowding at prisons, even as states such as New York enjoyed great success with reform measures.

It wasn’t voters who spent the past decade creating a heavily regulated business climate that drove jobs and companies — and thus revenue — to other states.

We could go on, but our point is clear: It is absurd for any pundit or politician to blame voters for the budget disaster. And it’s a canard that gets in the way of a constructive response to the crisis.

So long as lawmakers think they’re not the problem, the status quo won’t change. And so long as the journalists who cover these politicians accept this analysis, they will be sympathetic to the status quo — even though it’s a status quo that’s absolutely got to go.

Solutions to California’s budget problems do exist, but, like the first step of a 12-step recovery program, state leaders must be willing to admit the problem–and their responsibility to fix it–if they are ever to kick the state’s spending addiction.

For more on California budget reforms and the state’s spending problems, see: