California’s Budget Crisis: Make the Voters Decide

California’s voters need to take responsibility for the state’s budget, and stop blaming the politicians. Here’s the way to make them do that.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

29 thoughts on “California’s Budget Crisis: Make the Voters Decide”

  1. Jonathan

    Emotionally appealing but not I think good governance. We are not, thankfully, a democracy we are a republic and the elected officials in Sacramento are there to govern. As bad as things are I am not willing to risk the future of my state on the ballot proposition process, which is ruled by ignorance and misleading advertising and usually won by the person with the biggest pocketbook. One or both proposals could be disastrous….and pass.

    I share your frustration with the voters' "something for nothing" mindset, but I also understand that they and all other Americans have been living that way for decades so why would they believe anything else? The piper will come calling without a ballot proposition. The state will either reform or go bankrupt. Our bonds (many of which already go un-bid for) will not sell, our credit will be zilch and the economy will be crushed.

    That should motivate elected officials of both parties to act like elected officials and not just pass the buck to the people they are supposed to represent.


  2. Jonathan, your proposal actually mirrors not only arbitration but ancient Athenian criminal law. After a finding of guilt both the defense and the prosecution proposed a punishment, and the jury had to choose one or the other. Socrates in his Apology deliberates over whether he should propose a sizable punishment (like exile) as a way of avoiding death, and famously decides not to. (He first suggests that he should be rewarded like an Olympic victor, and finally, reluctantly, puts forth as his proposed punishment a small fine). I suspect that the Democrats in California would have the same problem: on principle, and pushed by various constituencies, they'd be tempted to put forth a humane budget that provided a decent level of services rather than one that would please the tax-averse, old, white, median referendum voter.

  3. Hi guys —

    Remember that in order to get any new revenue, you're going to have to go to the voters at some point or another. The Republicans will never vote to increase taxes even on Rupert Murdoch (ESPECIALLY on Rupert Murdoch), and then you will have to put something on the ballot. And if you put something on the ballot that doesn't force a choice, then the voters will just say "no."

    Andy's point about referendum voters is well-taken, but what I'm hoping here is that if there was ONE measure that would determine the future of the state, then the Dems might actually get off their duffs and start organizing people. Maybe it should be delayed until November 2012, but that may not be in time. Again, the question is always: in comparison to what? As it is right now, we are looking at massive, draconian cuts balanced out by — nothing. Your solution seems to be, "Hope that the Republicans become responsible." Although the odds of the voters becoming that are slim, they can be increased; for the GOP, the chances of acquiring responsibility asymptotically approach zero.

  4. I'm pretty sure you can't set it up so that, in rejecting one proposal, the voters reject another. Just as well, we'd see them confronted with one false alternative after another.

    How about breaking the budget up into a bunch of line items, couple each line item to enough tax to fully fund it, and have votes on each separate line item? Only the items which get enough votes stay in the budget, and the budget automatically balances no matter what set of proposals passes.

  5. We are not, thankfully, a democracy we are a republic and the elected officials in Sacramento are there to govern. As bad as things are I am not willing to risk the future of my state on the ballot proposition process,

    I sympathize with your viewpoint, Keith, and even agree. However, Washington and Sacramento have both taught us that a republic cannot be governed when the Legislature is tied with dysfunctional procedural mechanisms. It matters little that the mechanisms are imposed externally (as in Sacramento, albeit with the collusion of the California GOP) or are internal (as in D.C., where the 41% majority chose to make the Senate dysfunctional). The fact is that a minority has actively obstructed governance for its own short-term political gain.

    In a Panglossian world, this behavior would rebound against them in elections. This isn't the best of all possible worlds by a long shot, because modern computer software allows the dominant political parties to collude in the creation of safe districts for the very politicians who are manipulating the procedural rules.

    At this point, I rather wonder if we wouldn't be better off with a little-d democracy rather than a republic. I suppose we would have to create some kind of voter qualification method to keep uninformed voters out of the polls.

    I think I have to come down on Jonathon's side on this one. If a mechanism can be devised that allows the dysfunctioning parties to put competing budgets before the voters it might serve as a wake-up slap to the California electorate.

  6. California needs to take Route 66.

    Like Oregon's Prop 66…

    If there was a real progressive movement in this country they would be funding and sponsoring Proposition 66s in every state where it is allowed.

    The only way forward is to tax the rich. Tax the rich. Tax the rich.

    Enough with the gilded age…

    If the Feds won't do it then the states must.

  7. Do the math:

    For want of a few million The Univeristy of California has to shutter up various sports including its long and proud men's baseball team that survived how many wars?


    Meg Whitman who never could be bothered to vote afore, spends 140 million on her new political hobby.

    In a sane world she wouldn't have that much chump change to drop…

    In a sane world, they'd still be playing baseball at Cal.

    In a sane world, we'd tax the rich out of the rich.

    In a sane world Meg wouldn't be allowed to act so obscenely obese with democratic institutions…

    We are way past time for class warfare.

    But this time, it needs to be waged from the bottom up.

    Tax the rich.


  8. So, the politicians and bureaucrats of California spend money like there's no tomorrow and the voters get blamed for not indulging their spendiholism.

  9. IAACL (i am a california lawyer) though I don't specialize in initiatives and referenda. But i have looked into those sections of the Gov't Code a few times in the last several years. Short answer: Won't work; voters can always vote no. Historical answer: please recall that we've had dueling initiatives on the same topic a number of times in the last decade. Big Green vs. Big Brown was a famous one. Just last election cycle we had one initiative to expand the nonpartisan electoral commission and another to dissolve it. The basic rule remains — an initiative is put on the ballot to amend a statute or the constitution. If the initiative is defeated, the status quo remains.

    Whether the Legislature could adopt a statutory change to the laws governing referenda, such that it could put a referendum on the ballot that forced voters to indicate their preference between alternative budget proposals is beyond the scope of this comment. Somehow I doubt it. I think the voters always get to have the choice to vote no and tell the Legislature to try again.

  10. "Do the math:

    For want of a few million The University of California has to shutter up various sports including its long and proud men’s baseball team that survived how many wars?"

    Cry me a river. Like baseball is a core function of a university, which deserves a public subsidy.

  11. I've come to the conclusion that a constitutional convention would probably be a good idea for California.

  12. Voter-initiated, California constitutional amendment on the ballot could set this up.

    Sounds like pendulum arbitration to me:

    I'd let the two parties make any claim they want about the budget results, but have the description lead, in the first sentence and paragraph, with the Leg Analyst's assessment of whether the claims are accurate and what the budget results would actually be.

    I like the idea.

  13. And if I was a delegate in a CalConCon, I'd be agitating for a much bigger lege. Where I live, we have one house member for every 10,000 residents. The rep can know personally a great many of the politically active people in his/her district, and as a member of the public, it's a whole lot easier to feel like you have a chance to be heard.* We still have referenda, and some are bogus astroturf, but we're not a failed state.

    It also means that money plays a smaller role in politics, because you don't have to rely on TV time to try to reach the 2,500 people you need to vote for you to get elected.

    Obviously, California can't get the ratio all the way down to Montana levels, but an assembly of 500 would be more representative, and probably less likely to deadlock as regional factors would play against party solidarity on any number of issues.

    * I'm a nobody, and spent a couple hours skiing with my house rep the other day. My senator lives 3 houses down. Republican form of government works way better on a human scale.

  14. Harlot's prerogative, it's good. I like aphorisms, too! And I squandered a lot of my junior high school career reading science fiction. One of my faves was Robert Heinlein, who was a big aphorism man. He had one of his characters say: "When the people vote for the impossible, the disastrous possible happens instead."

  15. Having lived for many years in CA and watched its decline (and moved away just in time), I can confidently state my opinion that at least half of the mess CA is in now is due to the Propositions enacted by the voters. There is no reason to think that Big Money will not control the airwaves and cause erroneous voting again. The system is gamed, and until you fix the system, nothing will change. It appears to me the system is gamed to be a hyper-speed way to relieve the masses of their wealth and treasure, much more effective than at the national level. As such the system is working as…erm…unplanned. [/gloom]

    My 2¢

  16. Could we have an initiative that would retroactively undo any previous initiative that didn't pass by 2/3rds? and would it be a good idea?

    I don't understand how we can call something a Constitution when so few people can so easily change it.

    It's really more like one of those white boards, or a Powerpoint slide.

    How can we un-bleep ourselves?

  17. I forgot to say, the undoing of anything under 2/3rds could have a built-in cushion of a couple years, so we could re-vote on anything that was actually useful.

    Of course a real convention would be better if it were done right. But if we were wise enough to have a convention, would we be in this mess now?

  18. Welcome to blue state hell, from which escape is all but impossible. As a New Yorker, we are there too. CA initiatives, such as the property tax cap, have contributed to your current difficulties by blowing up the housing bubble (that existed there long before irresponsible mortgage lending extending it around the country) but the real irony of Gov. Brown's second coming is that apparently, the underlying cause of your disaster began on his first watch when public employees obtained collective bargaining rights. Such rights are essential in the private sphere where businesses historically were able to overwhelm workers, but those rights never should have been extended to essential public services at taxpayer expense. The existing feedback loop where public unions support and elect the politicians who overpay them and install their lucrative retirement and health benefits is the major source of our fiscal disfunction at all government levels. New Governor Cuomo is proposing a property tax cap bill as part of his plan, a recognition that we are overtaxed, not undertaxed, but a cure only for the symptom. The program needed in New York (and maybe CA) to restore fiscal health includes elimination of public employee collective bargaining (including public school teachers), reworking of pension and health benefits for all future public employees, merger of state agencies in order to downside the public workforce, merger or elimination of sewer districts to reduce local jurisdictions, merger of public school districts to reduce administrator costs, elimination of various mandated health insurance and other benefits that serves to encourage business to move to other states, reducing the tax base, rational managment of medicaid costs.

    Despite the name of this blog, i know you guys hate reality, but there it is.

  19. Redwave doesn't appear to have anything to say about the blog post. Moving on, then, we still have to see what effect Prop 25 and the removal of the two-thirds vote requirement for budgeting will have. I'm hoping it will help fix things, but I still think Jonathan's proposal is worth considering.

  20. I apologize, I thought the implication was pretty clear. The approach offered by Mr. Zasloff could never happen, it is strictly hypothetical and would not really address any of California's problems anyway. Of course, neither will the Brown administration nor the legislature, but you are stuck with that for now. Until you address the feedback loops that compound your propensity to spend money you don't have, despite having the second highest tax environment among all the states, you are heading for default.

  21. Here is a better proposal: Pass a constitutional amendment which allows the Governor and 2/3 majority of the Assembly to suspend spending on programs which had been mandated in the past through the proposition procedure (whether in the state constitution or not), based on a finding of budgetary emergency. That leaves governance with the folks who are paid to do so, rather than turning micro-management over to those least qualified to decide, and provides a safety valve where it matters most: spending. The thought of increasing taxes in the current economic environment is not just appalling to those seeking to protect Murdoch types, but would be a disaster to a state already reeling with massive unemployment.

  22. My wife and I are both engineers and we used to live in California. We were paying well over $1000/month in state income taxes. Furthermore, we were paying the very high sales tax as well. With such high taxes, how does California not have enough money? In any case, we made the correct decision in 2007 and moved to Texas. We pay no income taxes and everything else is way cheaper. And, yet, looking around Texas, the roads are better, the sewage is better, and so are the schools. Just way do the taxpayers get in California for all the money they pay?

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