Elected officials need authority to take blame…

(Copyright 2009)

Among the major causes or components of the built-in senseless gridlock in California government is Proposition 13.

(Some of all of this may apply to other states too.) 

It’s the 1978 tax measure that among other things required a 2/3 vote of the legislature to raise taxes.

Kind of the same mentality that calls for term limits, mandatory sentencing, and constitutional requirements that lock the state government into funding specific categories or programs.

California’s budgeting laws lock in a major portion of the state’s spending for designated services, leaving the legislature and the governor with less than half of the total budget to argue over as “discretionary spending”.

And I should caution serious California readers to read Dan Walters (works for the Sacramento Bee, is on the web) to get a better understanding of this. I’ve followed California politics most of my life, but mostly on a surface basis, as a reader of current events. I did take a California government class in college, but I don’t begin to understand all of its complexities. On the other hand, it should not be terribly difficult. As it presently stands, you have Democrats who hold the majority and these days seem to reign primarily in the populous LA area and the Bay Area, and then you have a lot of Republicans everywhere else. At present, Democrats support tax increases and Republicans oppose tax increases, but do support spending cuts, to the extent they can make them. And in there, you have to realize that modern conservatives use the strategy of “starving the beast” to oppose social programs. It’s easier to cut off funding than to take on a particular social program head-on.

The problem is, as Dan Walters often notes, California continually runs a “structural deficit”, which forces it even in good economic times (and these of course are not) to spend more than it takes in. That’s because our elected officials have direct authority only over a relatively small portion of the budget.

To some extent, I think, both Democrats and Republicans almost like aspects of the structural deficit. They can hide behind it to cover their own poor judgment, throwing up their hands and saying: “we have no choice; we’re locked in”.

(I once covered county government for a newspaper. The Road Department chief continually ran what seemed to be a bloated budget, but when the supervisors tried to force his department to be more efficient, he smiled and said he could not do that because state regulations required that state-funded road equipment and even employee hours could only be used for certain things; I think there is some analogy, if indirect, there to the problem of which I am addressing.)

The way things should work in our representative democracy with its three branches of government, legislative, administrative, judicial, is that the majority of  the elected  legislators, who in turn use the proxy of the voters, determine how things should run. The governor, an elected official, is supposed to be the administrator, who does have checks on the power of the legislature, because he can veto legislation, and just like the president of the United States, he can take his case directly to the people, as well. Unlike the president of the U.S., he also has a line-item budget veto.

Oh, and I should mention, California and many other states, unlike the federal government, is required by law to balance its budget.

I mentioned the three-strikes law that hobbles the judiciary to some effect, and term limits that limit the power of voters, but those items are not the main subject of this blog, so back to the budget problem:

At some point the far right and some anti-tax extremists (to some extent one of the same), felt it did not have enough influence, and at the same time, elected officials at both the county and state levels got carried away with spending and riled property owners and potential property owners. So Proposition 13 with its 2/3 vote tax increase provision (not to mention the utterly unfair and inequitable and burdensome multi-tier property tax structure (the definition of arcane) was passed as a kind of gigantic public tax protest.

I know, back in the 70s, my wife and I had recently started to buy a home, and we voted for it. As I mentioned in a blog a few months ago, I was covering county government at the time and watched a conservative board of supervisors simply ask its treasurer what the expenses were and then they set the tax rate accordingly (a little more discussion on how we might keep those expenses in check, maybe). That seemed a rather open-ended approach. At the time, some 30 years ago, the county was already locked into funding unfunded state mandates, and it has not changed. The structural deficit situation rears its ugly head. It would seem those who are charged with spending the money must have authority over how to raise it and spend it).

The problem is that it is not practical to codify into law what decisions legislators must make on passing legislation on the budget or otherwise, or judges must make when sentencing criminals (three strikes: two felonies, then the bad guy turns good, but at some point gets hungry and steals a slice of pizza – goes back to state prison, rather than probation or a county jail term as a first offender might suffer — adds to state prison overcrowding and expenses). Both legislators and judges make wrong decisions, but there is a reason we have people make decisions. Decisions on policy or human lives must be made with flexibility to fit the circumstances.

Right now the free-spending Democrats outnumber the Republicans in the California legislature. The only way the Republicans (who actually do a fairly good job in spending themselves) feel that they can keep their rivals in check is to vote no and make use of the 2/3 requirement, making the state run out of money, lay off workers, quit paying its bills (to business and private citizens), cut back in education and law enforcement, make the state’s sorry credit rating even worse and so on.

Without the inflexibility of the 2/3 requirement the stalemate could be broken. Yes it might wind up being a tyranny of the majority as far as the Republicans are concerned, but they can get more office holders elected and it is better than letting the tyranny of the minority dismantle our state government and cause such human misery in the process.

Three strikes and terms limits (the havoc they cause a subject in itself) are silly and even dangerous as well, but some other time on those.

Add 1:  While a Bakersfield Republican senator notes in a story in the Bakersfield Californian that supposedly anti-tax hero former Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967 proposed the largest tax increase in the state’s history, the state being in fiscal dire straits then too, and that he, the Bakersfield senator, might consider compromise, that can be dangerous. The Republicans this week kicked out their own minority leader for supporting cooperation.


A solution: Re-do the state constitution. Give the power back to our elected officials and let the check on them be the voters. Otherwise we might as well have a computer geek write a government program and we could dismantle the human government and feed everything into a computer. Garbage in, garbage out.

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