For reasons that mystify me, Jerry Brown wanted to be Governor of California again, and as of a few hours ago, he has gotten his wish. Now comes the proverbial hard part: a budget deficit that by some measures reaches $28 billion, nearly a quarter of total state spending. Brown has quietly mooted the idea of making massive, draconian cuts to the budget while asking voters to approve the extension of earlier, temporary tax increases that would reduce the gap to “only” $20 billion or so. No smoke and mirrors, he insists.
But if he really wants to avoid smoke and mirrors, he should take the whole issue directly to the voters and make them decide. Not let them decide: make them decide. State budgets around the country are all in a shambles, but California’s is particularly bad, and for that, the voters have no one to blame but themselves, consistently cutting their own taxes, hamstringing the Legislature’s ability to do anything, both fiscally and procedurally.
What to do? I propose having both the Democrats and the Republicans place their budget proposals on the ballot, and the voters must choose one of them. Each proposal must close the budget gap within a particular fiscal band, and the integrity of the estimates can be checked by the state’s Chief Legislative Analyst, who usually does nonpartisan fiscal analyses for budget measures.
The incentives would be something akin to an arbitration: each side wants the decision to come as close as possible to its preferences, but since the arbitrator-electorate can only choose one, the more extreme the solution is, the more likely the arbitrator will be to choosing the other side’s proposal.
I believe that the Democrats will win this one: Republicans will either have to propose raising taxes, infuriating their base, or propose cuts so dramatic that the voters will be turned off.
It’s critical, in my view, to present the voters with a choice, one of which they must accept. As the Los Angeles Times poll a few weeks ago showed, the electorate simply does not believe the numbers — only a quarter believe that balancing the state budget without tax increases will require any cuts in services. So if the Governor puts a budget proposal on the ballot, and warns what will happen if it’s rejected, the voters will just not believe it, and vote “no.”
I do admit that I am unsure at this stage whether such a framework fits in under California’s initiative and referendum law. My understanding is that the Legislature needs a 2/3 majority to put a referendum on the ballot, and the Republicans will vote no on doing this, for reason I just discussed. But there are other ways to get this done than through the standard referendum process. I’ll research and update.
In the meantime, though, I think that the overall point is clear. Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, California voters have decided that they will maintain tight control over the state’s fiscal situation. But they have never actually had to make the decisions. They have had, as Rudyard Kipling (or was it Stanley Baldwin?) once observed, “Power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” It’s time to stop it.