Anyone who is interested in California politics shouldn’t miss Michael Hiltzik’s wonderful new blog. Hiltzik’s a great writer, extremely knowledgeable, and the author of an important book demolishing Bush’s Social Security phase-out plan.
This weekend, Hiltzik rightfully skewers the Governator for authoring an initiative for after-school programs that automatically comes out of the state budget–and then loudly complaining that the state budget is on autopilot.
But Hiltzik goes wrong when he similarly attacks Rob Reiner for authoring an initiative (for the June 2006 ballot) that would establish universal preschool for the state’s four-year-olds. The difference is that Reiner’s measure (unlike Schwartzenegger’s) tells us how to pay for it, namely, with a tax on those making more than $400,000 a year.
Hiltzik thinks that this is just as irresponsible because “the top tax bracket is the most precious stream of revenue we have in California” and it can only be tapped once. While preschool programs might be valuable, he says, the Legislature should be making decisions about priorities; instead, we get ballot-box budgeting that reflects no clear sense of which needs are the most important.
This makes sense theoretically, but practically, it’s a losing argument. California is one of only three states that requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, and the current Norquisitian theology has completely infected the state’s GOP, which can block any increase due to the two-thirds rule. When Pete Wilson agreed to series of tax increases and budget cuts in order to balance the budget a few years back, he was nearly read out of the party; his desire to get into good graces with the wingnuts was what led him to become a nativist crusader. The Legislature simply cannot set priorities in the current political climate.
Well, then why not just repeal the two-thirds rule by initiative? Been there, done that: it was tried a couple of years ago, and the voters crushed it. California voters might approve higher taxes in some circumstances, but only if they know precisely what it’s going for (and only if someone else is actually paying them). The electorate has elected to remain firmly in control of taxes, and that means that the only way to enact important measures like preschool is to do it through the ballot box.
It may say something about California politics that the Meathead is more effective than the Legislature. But whether we like it or not, in this state at least, ballot-box budgeting is an awful idea whose time has come.