Dan Walters: Two California budget duels illustrate chicken-and-egg question

dwalters@sacbee.comOctober 17, 2012 

Two years ago, Democratic politicians and their union allies placed a measure on the ballot to eliminate California's requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote for state budgets – but that's not what they told voters.

The campaign for the measure, Proposition 25, focused instead on the palpable – albeit overwrought – public anger over the Legislature's bad habit of producing budgets weeks or even months after the constitutional deadline.

In effect, Democratic legislators were exploiting their own unpopularity by including a provision that lawmakers would lose their salaries if they failed to meet the deadline.

Proposition 25's opponents – conservative, anti-tax groups mostly – said it was a sham argument. But it worked. Proposition 25 passed.

Months later, when the salary-loss provision was invoked by state Controller John Chiang, the Legislature's Democratic leaders responded with cries of outrage and a lawsuit, culminating in a judge's ruling that only legislators themselves could decide whether their budgets met constitutional criteria.

A sham, indeed.

This morsel of political history is offered because of what's happening this year vis-à-vis Proposition 32, which reverses the political sides.

Proposition 32, sponsored by conservative, anti-tax groups, purports to be a measure aimed at reducing or even eliminating special interest campaign financing. But its real effect, if passed, would be to kneecap political financing from unions, which overwhelmingly goes to Democrats. Unions would be barred from getting political money from payroll deductions.

Voters have rejected such efforts in the past, but those who drafted Proposition 32 threw in the supposed – albeit toothless – restriction on corporate funds to mask its true purpose, hoping to take advantage of the voting public's cynicism about politicians being dominated by moneyed interests.

The Democrats and union leaders who oppose Proposition 32 have labeled it a sham, which it is, just as their Proposition 25 was a sham two years ago.

It calls to mind the old adage of Capitol politics, "What goes around comes around."

The two measures also illustrate how the initiative process, which California adopted in 1911 as a way to sidestep special-interest control of the Legislature, has itself become a tool of narrow interests to do battle with each other, and how easy it has become for those with the resources to write and place on the ballot measures that are inherently and deliberately misleading.

And, finally, they raise this chicken-and-egg question:

Did the Capitol become dysfunctional due to misuse of the initiative process or did the process become the irrational way we make public policy because of the Capitol's maladroitness?

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