The strangest of all this fall’s intense initiative battles may be the small-money one being waged over Proposition 31, whose innocuous title (“State Budget. State and Local Government. Initiative constitutional amendment and statute) gives only a faint clue as to what it’s about.
Its sponsors see this as a simple reform measure. It would set up a two-year state budget cycle. It would prevent legislators from making new expenditures of $25 million or more unless there are offsetting revenues or spending cuts. It lets the governor cut the budget unilaterally during declared fiscal emergencies, but only if the Legislature takes no action at all. It lets local governments band together for some of their functions, but only with overwhelming support of city councils and school boards. Perhaps most important, it requires publication of all legislative bills at least three days before legislators can vote on them.
That last change could end the flim-flam practice of “gut-and-amend” lawmaking, where bills that at first say one thing are scrubbed clean, then filled with entirely new content and passed quickly. It could end last-minute passage of budgets whose content is largely unknown even to lawmakers voting on them.
That package was described this way one far-right blog: “Prop. 31 kills suburbs and funnels tax $$ to big cities like L.A. and San Fran.” Huh?
Another blogger asked, “Which California cities will be Germany or Greece under Prop. 31?”
The initiative is actually the brainchild of the California Forward organization, a business- and foundation-funded group which has spent years devising ways it thinks can make state government more efficient, while still keeping it open and responsive to new citizen concerns. Billionaire Nick Berggruen spent $1.5 million on the petition campaign that put this on the ballot, while California Forward itself came up with $1.4 million.
The right-wing attacks came as a bit of a shock to the group. “These statements are bizarre distortions of the truth,” said Jim Mayer, the group’s executive director.
Here’s how the section most troubling to Tea Party activists and others now battling Proposition 31 is described by the non-partisan state legislative analyst: “Counties and other local governments could create plans for coordinating how they provide public services…including economic development, education, social services, public safety and public health. Each plan would have to be approved by the governing boards of the (1) county, (2) school districts serving a majority of the county’s students, and (3) local governments representing a majority of the county’s population.” To use property tax money for any of this, each local government affected would have to approve the change with a two-thirds vote of its governing board.
No mention here of regional governments, which the opponents say they fear, although there could be regional services. No way, for instance, Los Angeles or San Diego or Fresno or Sacramento could seize money from suburbs without supermajority votes by city councils and school boards in those suburbs.
That doesn’t appease the opponents. “We’ve seen government abuse its powers too often,” said Steve Frank, a conservative blogger, lobbyist and former head of the California Republican Assembly. “And we’ve seen that the actual words of a proposition don’t matter. So we don’t want to give government any more power than it has now.”
Frank cites the 2010 Proposition 25, which mandated that state legislators get no pay when passage of a balanced budget is overdue. “When the state controller tried to enforce that last year, the courts ruled that as long as the Legislature says a budget is balanced, that’s all they have to do,” he said. “It doesn’t really have to be balanced, and of course it wasn’t that year.”
So he says requiring a two-thirds vote of affected agency boards can be interpreted many ways, regardless of the plain language in Proposition 31. “Is it two-thirds of the entire board, two-thirds of those present or two-thirds of those voting? Those can be very different,” Frank said.
Tea Partiers were dismayed when the state Republican Party convention endorsed the initiative without much discussion. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party and labor unions oppose it, primarily because of the new power it would give the governor, who can become a budget czar if legislators fail to act within 45 days of declaration of a fiscal emergency. This is a power Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger actively sought while governor, but one which doesn’t seem of much interest to current Gov. Jerry Brown.
“Any action, however small, by the Legislature would keep the governor from exercising this power,” says Mayer. Frank responds that because the governor can veto whatever legislators do, he can be a dictator whenever he decides.
“When you give any governor that type of power, you have no idea who the next governor or the one after might be and what they might do,” says Frank.
It comes down to an argument where the actual words of the proposition don’t matter much to some and are all-important to others. Bizarre might be the best word for it all.