|Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions since 1980 by Pete Stahl|
Read the ratings:
Prop. 68 - SOON
Prop. 69 - SOON
Prop. 70 - SOON
Prop. 71 - SOON
Prop. 72 - SOON
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Pete Rates the Propositions
(Please see My semi-biennial lecture on bonds for my opinion on bonds in general.)
Prop 40 is a $2.6 billion bond for natural resource conservation, park acquisition and improvement, and historical preservation. More than half of the money will be allocated to cities, counties, conservancies and other districts. These local agencies have grown to depend on state aid to fund parks and conservation. Without this bond, many local projects would probably see no funding at all.
Prop 40 will pay for projects in four broad categories. The largest is land, air and water conservation ($1.3 billion), including $375 million for water resource protection and $445 million for conservancies such as the State Coastal Conservancy. Other categories are local parks and recreation areas ($832 million), historical and cultural preservation ($267 million), and state parks ($225 million), with an emphasis on revamping visitor centers. While there is inevitably some pork in such a huge measure (e.g., $10 million specifically for a city park in Rancho Cucamonga), by and large these are deserving projects, many of them crucial to the preservation of our environment.
There are some red flags in Prop 40, however. Part of my semi-biennial justification of bonds is that it’s appropriate for the state to borrow if it’s buying long-lived property and improvements. But the $375 million Prop 40 earmarks for water resource protection may be spent not just on acquisition and repair of tangible property, but also on “associated planning, permitting, and administrative costs” (p. 62 in your ballot pamphlet, sec. 5096.650(c)). In other words, some of Prop 40 could pay for bureaucrats, environmental impact reports, and office supplies. Because private, nonprofit organizations are eligible for water protection funding, in theory Prop 40 bonds could be used for Sierra Club executive salaries or Audubon Society computers. Other sections of Prop 40 allow bond proceeds to be used for “state administrative costs.” These provisions contradict my lecture, and I find it a bit troubling.
Also in the red flag department: Just two years ago we approved Props 12 and 13, bonds for water, air and parks totaling $4 billion. These were the first environmental bonds passed in a decade. Following such a funding drought, you’d think that so many environmental projects would be stacked up, waiting for money, that all of the bonds would be spoken for by now, necessitating the current measure. Not so. The Legislative Analyst estimates that we still have over $1.2 billion left.
The more cynical among us might look at the huge margins by which 12 and 13 passed (both received over 63%) and conclude that the legislature is just using Prop 40 to balance the state budget through borrowing. By this argument, most Prop 40 programs would be funded anyway; using bonds just lets the legislature foist the cost onto future taxpayers. It’s an enticing argument, but I don’t buy it. Remember that over half of Prop 40’s money goes to local agencies. Recent history has shown that when there’s a budget crunch in Sacramento, local agencies get shafted. The local projects in Prop 40 won’t “be funded anyway.” Passage of this bond is the only way local agencies will see the environmental funding proposed here.
So while the red flags tempt me to recommend against Prop 40, I must support it to guarantee funding for crucial environmental programs. Without 40, California’s watershed, lakes, rivers and coastline will suffer further deterioration at the hands of developers, agribusiness and the still-exploding population. Compared to that, the red flags are mere quibbles. The failure of Prop 40 would pose a risk to the state’s environment I’m not willing to take.
(Please see My semi-biennial lecture on bonds for my opinion on bonds in general.)
Death to chad! If you vote in California, chances are you use a prescored punch-card ballotyou know, the kind where you must laboriously find the number corresponding to each candidate or proposition, tediously find the same number on the ballot, then carefully punch out the chad, making sure not to leave it dimpled, pregnant or hanging. The process is error-prone for voters and, as we discovered in Florida, error-prone for vote counters, too. Punch-card technology is a dinosaur, dating back to the time when punch cards were how computers worked. Can we do better? Of course we can. And we must, because in reaction to the Florida debacle, California has de-certified punch-card voting systems, effective 2006.
The cost of new voting equipment is estimated at $375 million. Prop 41 is a bond for $200 million to get the ball rolling. The remaining funds would come from counties ($67 million), which own the equipment, and the federal government, which is expected to kick in $108 million as part of a larger election reform package.
Judging from last year’s Election Technology Expo, the new voting equipment is likely to involve touch-screen computers linked in secure networks. The computers would make it much easier to tell whom you’re voting for; they would also prevent invalid or ambiguous votes. They could easily present ballots for any combination of districts in any language, and if desired, provide individual ballot receipts to voters. Absentee ballots presumably would be the simple paper-and-marker kind, counted with whizzy, new, high-accuracy optical scanning machines.
“It all sounds great,” you may be thinking, “but $375 million is a lot of money. Tell me, why should we go to all this trouble and expense?” I hear you. The answer has to do with what kind of representative democracy we want. Florida seriously shook the public’s confidence in the electoral process. Prop 41 is our chance to restore it. If you want future elections to be decided by unintended votes from confusing butterfly ballots, or by ballots invalidated by hanging chad, feel free to vote no on 41. But if you think it’s important that voting be easy, fair, and accurate, and you think it’s worth the bond payments of $26 million a yearabout 75 cents per Californianyou’ll join me in supporting Prop 41.
Pork, pork, pork. Prop 42 is corporate welfare. It’s unnecessary legislation designed to benefit a special interest. If passed, it will hand $1 billion a year of your tax dollars to the very people who are pushing it. It’s repugnant.
Building and maintaining roads in California costs $15 billion a year. The state government pays for only one third of that; most of the funding is from local governments ($7.5 billion) and Washington ($3 billion). Virtually all of the state’s $4.5 billion contribution comes from the state excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, and the sales tax on diesel.
Now look in the table. See that 5% sales tax for Sacramento? That’s worth about $1 billion a year. How should it be spent? Currently it goes to the state’s General Fund to pay for education, health care, social services, and so on. Two years ago, however, the Legislature enacted a bill dedicating that billion exclusively to transportation for fiscal years 2004-08. Prop 42 asks us to enshrine that allocation in the state Constitution, and make it permanent.
Pork, pork, pork. Now, I agree with Prop 42’s sponsors that we should tax gasoline to pay for transportation. But that’s what the excise tax is for. Look at the table again: the excise tax, by far the largest tax on gas, already goes to roads, buses and rail. The sales tax is independent of that, and should remain so.
If we divert the sales tax on gasoline to transportation projects, as Prop 42 proposes, perhaps we also ought to divert the sales tax on running shoes to sports facilities, and the sales tax on electronic equipment to building Internet infrastructure. You can see where I’m going with this. Pretty soon there won’t be any discretionary funding for schools, hospitals, and other things we really need. The sales tax is a general tax. It ought to go into the General Fund so the legislature can allocate it appropriately among deserving programs, year by year, as needs arise.
Funding mandates such as Prop 42 amount to budgeting by robot. The largest mandate, Prop 98 of 1988, automatically reserves half the General Fund for education. Okay, maybe education should be the state’s number one priority, with a special spending mandate. But what’s priority number two? Prisons? Health care? Roads? A ballot proposition is not the right way to choose. I pay my legislators to decide whether transportation deserves that billion dollars, or whether it would be better spent on hospitals, schools, or homeland defense.
Pork, pork, pork. A cursory perusal of the contributors to Prop 42 reveals the transportation construction industry is not bashful about supporting the measure. Granite Construction of Watsonville has contributed over $500,000. A. Teichert & Son of Sacramento is in for $290,000, and Vulcan Materials of L.A. for $150,000. Hanson Aggregates, Herzog Contracting, and Griffith Co. are signed up for $100,000 each, and the Operating Engineers Local 3 has kicked in $200,000.
If we pass Prop 42, it will encourage other industries to place their own special funding mandates on the ballot. The result will be an atmosphere where special interests feel they can buy legislation for their own benefit. You might believe these interests already own most of the politicians in Sacramento and Washington. Don’t let them think they own us, too.
Okay, Prop 43 is all, like, “A voter who casts a vote in an election in accordance with the laws of this state shall, um, have that vote counted.”
So I’m, like, “Huh? Don’t they already have to count our ballots? I’m, like, totally confused.” But then I’m like, “Duh, remember that election in Florida, with, uh, Kate Bush and Leslie Gore, aren’t they singers? And that guy Chad from the Charlie’s Angels movie?” Yeah, you’re like, “Uh-huh.” You remember too.
So it turns out the Supremes (no, not with Diana Ross, they broke up, like, centuries ago) could stop Florida from completing its recount because, like, it didn’t say anywhere that Florida had to count everyone’s votes. So the Supremes were, like, “Okay, there’s this deadline, everybody stop counting now, we’re giving the Grammy to Kate Bush. You can all go home.” Like, how rude.
So Prop 43 will make the Supremes have to let them count everyone’s votes, and the Grammys will be totally fair, not like those MTV Video Music Awards, they are so rigged, like, duh.
Here we have the very model of a modern proposition,
“Throw the rascals out!” That was the rallying cry for Prop 140, the 1990 term limits initiative. Aimed at entrenched career politicians and the special interests supposedly keeping them in office, Prop 140 passed in a landslide of indignation. Members of the Assembly are now limited to six years in office, and State Senators eight.
Prop 45 would allow legislators to stay in office four more years. To run for an extra term, they would have to collect the signatures of 20% of the voters in their districts. Once these petitions have been submitted, the legislators would appear on ballots like any other candidate, and they would still have to win the primary and general elections to be returned to office. The Prop 45 extension would be usable just once; after the four additional years, the rascals would indeed be thrown out.
Considering how easily a twice- or thrice-elected incumbent could gather the necessary signatures, the proposed four-year extensions will be pretty much automatic. So in essence, Prop 45 asks us whether to increase Assembly term limits from six years to ten, and Senate limits from eight years to twelve.
In 1990 I opposed Prop 140 on several grounds, chiefly that it would leave legislators dangerously uninformed by slashing their staffs and kicking them out of office so soon. Imagine you’re a second-term Assembly member faced with a critical bill on water rights, electricity deregulation, or some other important but arcane subject. You may have been elected because of your enlightened positions on education, crime, or the environment, but let’s face it, the State Water Project leaves you stumped. Before Prop 140, you could have depended on staff (your own or a colleague’s) to know this stuff; failing that, you might have relied on a longtime member to help guide you. But post-140, who in Sacramento can tell you about these things? Don’t call meI’m busy, and besides, I don’t know from water policy either. It’s the lobbyists and party operatives you’ll turn to: agents of the very same special interests Prop 140 was supposed to disenfranchise.
The term limits in Prop 140 are so severe that they threaten to eliminate the institutional memory crucial to the smooth functioning of the Legislature. Pre-140, when an issue came up in Assembly committee, chances were that someone on the panel had dealt with it before, and understood the players involved, what action was taken, and why the law is the way it is. Nowadays, any issue revisited after six years or more will face a completely fresh set of legislators. It’s inefficient at best, and possibly dangerous, as old compromises are rehashed and details forgotten.
The four-year extensions proposed by Prop 45 are too short to permit the reemergence of monster power bosses like former Assembly speakers Jesse Unruh or Willie Brown. And they won’t block your favorite city council member forever from making the leap to higher office. What they will do is make our state Legislature a more coherent body, familiar with the issues before it, able to move ahead without the kind of confusion we’ve begun to see since the limits went into effect.
When California wants to finance large projects, it asks the voters for permission to take out loans. Props 40 and 41 are just such requests. If voters approve, the legislature may take out loans for the projects by selling general obligation bonds, which are paid back with interest over twenty-five years or so. The bond payments come out of the state's main budget, the General Fund. So when we vote on the bonds, we are really voting on whether the project in question ought to be added to the state's budget.
“Wait a minute!” I hear you cry. “What about those interest payments? Won't we end up paying more for interest than for the bonds themselves?” This used to be the case, but with today's low interest rates each dollar of bond money will cost only 23 cents in interest, accounting for inflation. (See page 30 of your ballot pamphlet for details.)
“Okay,” you admit, “but loans are still more expensive than pay-as-you-go.” This is true. But loans are the only way to buy a house, or a car, or anything else that you need immediately but can't pay for yet. It's worth paying the premium of interest to get the funding now.
“Well and good,” you continue, “but there are $2.8 billion in bonds on this ballot. Isn't that too much to borrow?” For you, yes, but the State of California can handle it. Current bond payments total less than 5% of the General Fund. The bonds from Props 40 and 41 would not change that.
Props 40 and 41 will fund long-lived, tangible acquisitions, such as wildlife habitats, parklands, and recreational facilities. It's sensible to make extended payments for things that will be used far into the future. Remember, too, that California's population continues to grow by hundreds of thousands of people every year. Borrowing makes particular sense if you know your income will go up in the future. As the state grows and the economy recovers, the General Fund will certainly grow too.
There is one last reason to vote for a bond measure. In addition to being formal requests for permission to take out loans, bond measures are also looked upon as referenda on the merits of the proposed projects. If a bond measure fails, legislators are likely to believe that the public feels the project is not worthy of receiving state funding. By voting no, you may have meant, “Yes on the project but no on the bonds,” but your message to Sacramento will read, “No on the project.” So if you vote down a bond measure just because you don't like bonds, you may well have killed forever the project the bonds were to have funded.