Election results complicate efforts for structural reform

150 150 Loren Kaye

California voters demonstrated their famed misdirection on Nov. 2, stopping the Republican tsunami at the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but also sending a strong message about the size and reach of government, and just how far they will trust politicians, once elected to office.

Democrats have nearly swept (pending the outcome of the Attorney General’s contest) every statewide office, for only the second time since 1883. California has an overwhelming registration advantage for Democrats, and the rout for the statewide candidates probably has less to do with the voters’ love of Democrats than their distaste for Republicans.

If Jerry Brown has received a mandate from the voters, it is easy to divine from the results of the ballot measures: insist California government live within its means and hold to his pledge to subject any new tax proposals to a popular vote. The story is written in the election results for seven ballot measures:

  • Proposition 21, an $18-per-vehicle tax increase to fund state parks, was soundly rejected, even though there was little opposition.
  • Proposition 22, which was approved, demonstrates that the voters do not trust the Legislature to solve the state’s fiscal mess responsibly by using local government revenues.
  • Proposition 24, which would have reinstated taxes on California companies that invest in jobs and property, was overwhelmingly defeated despite an aggressively funded “Yes” campaign by the teachers’ union.
  • Proposition 25, which reduces the legislative vote requirement for passing a state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, was sold on the basis of punishing legislators for not passing an on-time budget.
  • Proposition 26 clearly defines fees and taxes at the state and local levels so that governments can’t pass real taxes with a simple majority vote. In spite of a well-financed “No” campaign and a confusing ballot label, the voters approved this measure, indicating a desire for transparency in their government.

Finally, voters overwhelmingly supported keeping the Legislature out of reapportionment, when they defeated Proposition 27, which would have eliminated the Citizens Redistricting Commission, and passed Proposition 20, which extends the commission’s authority to redrawing congressional districts.

Unfortunately, the partisan make-up of the Legislature does not bode well for future structural reforms of California government.

First, the Legislature has proven that, absent duress, it will not voluntarily initiate reforms. The most recent examples: the Top Two primary, which became Proposition 14 last June, as well as the once and future budget reform ballot measures in 2009 and 2012, were placed before the voters only because the Governor and some Republicans insisted as part of an overall budget deal. Obviously, with the passage of Prop 25, Republicans no longer have that leverage, so importuning the Legislature will be the job of the Governor. Will this be part of Brown’s agenda?

Second, the only structural reform that sincerely interested legislative Democrats was reducing the budget and tax approval thresholds. Other reforms embodied, for example, in the California Forward agenda were not much more than window dressing for the main event.

Now that Prop 25 has given the majority party exclusive power and responsibility for passing the budget and related legislation, Democrats will be even less inclined to adopt reforms that will constrain their ability to spend one-time money, revisit performance of favored programs, or ensure new spending has an identified source of funding, among other reforms.

Loren Kaye is the president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education.


Loren Kaye

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