Meathead 1, Legislature 0

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.

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.