California budget is in hands of angry electorate

Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO ” On Tuesday, just five months after a historic presidential contest, California voters will head back to the polls, sent by lawmakers in a gambit to address a widening budget deficit.

Will they agree to higher taxes? Borrowing against future lottery revenue? Raiding funds voters previously set aside to help young children and the mentally ill?

If recent opinion surveys are a reliable indication of public sentiment, voters are unmoved. They’re confused by the propositions on the special election ballot and don’t understand why lawmakers can’t handle on their own the basic job they’re elected to perform ” passing an annual state budget.

Analysts say the slate of six ballot measures is a recipe for electoral disaster because it is so complex and is not supported with a unifying message from the Legislature. The election also comes at a time of rising unemployment, plunging home values, growing economic uncertainty and deep distrust of state politicians, leaving voters in a foul mood.

Here’s a sample of what they must sort through: Some propositions would address the state’s immediate budget problem, while others have nothing to do with the deficit. An education funding measure would not take effect unless voters pass a separate proposition that would impose a spending cap. And the spending cap measure would trigger an extension of previously approved tax increases that are not even on the ballot.


Try this: Even if voters approve all the measures, California will still face a deficit of $15.4 billion in the fiscal year that begins in July.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Natalie Head, 34, a registered Democrat in Sacramento. “Whether they win or loose, A, the deficit is so much bigger now than when it was when they built this plan. And B, you can’t budget on proposals.”

Lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the special election in February when they agreed to a budget package that was intended to close a $42 billion deficit through the middle of next year.

But it hasn’t worked. Despite cutting $15 billion, raising taxes by $12.8 billion and borrowing more than $11 billion, the budget deficit reappeared. The recession is the main culprit, with lost jobs, business bankruptcies and a comatose construction industry leading to a sharper-than-expected drop in tax revenue.

Personal income in California has fallen this year for the first time since 1938, and the state simply does not have enough money coming in to pay for its services.

But polls show voters are unconvinced the propositions will solve the state’s continual fiscal problems. Part of the reason is the confusion caused by the ballot package.

The measure that would mean the most for next year’s budget, Proposition 1C, is a prime example.

Schwarzenegger and lawmakers say it would generate $5 billion by having voters authorize higher jackpot payouts for the state lottery. They say the promise of higher payouts will lure more players, thus boosting revenue. In turn, investors would loan California $5 billion today for the promise of getting repaid ” with interest ” from the higher lottery revenue later.

The proposition does not say how the investors will be repaid if the lottery revenue does not increase as lawmakers promise it will.

Two other measures will ask voters to tinker with initiatives they approved previously, redirecting nearly $900 million from childhood development programs and mental health services to the state general fund.

Proposition 1A would create a state spending cap but does not say anything about what else it would do if passed ” trigger a budget bill that would extend increases in the sales, personal income and vehicle taxes through 2013.

As a result, the campaign messages have been mixed. The fight against Proposition 1A, for example, has united conservative anti-tax groups and state employee unions, two groups that are almost always at odds. The state’s two teachers unions have taken different positions on the ballot measures.

All of which has helped produced a tuned-out electorate.

“I don’t know anything about it because I don’t pay any attention to them,” said Charles Morris, 46, a registered Republican from Sacramento.

Morris said he’s not voting because he’s unfamiliar with the state budgeting process.

That sentiment, reinforced in recent public opinion surveys, raises questions about whether it’s smart for lawmakers to place so much of the state’s annual budgeting process in the hands of voters.

“It’s not particularly wise to put to voters these decisions,” said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “It not only causes the expense of having elections, it causes voter fatigue, it causes voter disgust with the system.”

It’s easy to see why California voters may simply be fed up. This will be the 12th time they have been asked to vote in a statewide election since 2002. That includes the last special election called by Schwarzenegger in 2005 ” when voters ran the table and rejected all eight ballot propositions.

It doesn’t help that the budget plan that put the six measures on the ballot was the result of one of the most divisive and grueling legislative sessions on record. The series of negotiations in February included all-nighters and the longest continuous session in California history.

At one point, an impasse kept 120 members inside the Capitol on Valentine’s Day. Talks didn’t end until a week later after sleep-deprived, finger-pointing lawmakers had essentially worn themselves out. The budget passed only after Democratic leaders gave in to the personal demands of a handful of Republicans, just enough to reach the two-thirds vote threshold required to pass the budget.

Schwarzenegger and lawmakers who support the ballot propositions say none of that should matter now.

They say California voters have a choice on Tuesday ” a $15.4 billion deficit if they approve the propositions or a $21.3 billion deficit and deeper cuts if they don’t. The latter amount would equal roughly a quarter of all general fund spending.

Schwarzenegger’s personnel office has already begun sending layoff notices to 5,000 state workers, and the governor has said thousands of teachers will lose their jobs, the school year will be shortened and tens of thousands of low-income children will lose health care.

“We are in deep, deep trouble unlike the state has ever faced,” the governor told local government officials earlier this week.

Critics call Schwarzenegger’s pronouncements scare tactics and note that the deficit will be monstrous even if voters approve the ballot propositions.

In one sign of the popular mood, just one of the six ballot measures, Proposition 1F, appears to have wide voter support. It would prohibit lawmakers and other state elected officials from receiving pay raises during deficit years.

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