Well, I received my copy of the official summary of ballot measures for the upcoming statewide election (March 2nd – those of you in the state, make sure you’re registered!) and read through them. And much to my surprise, I may end up voting a somewhat different pattern than usual. Here are my current thoughts on all four upcoming statewide measures; I’m splitting them into two posts because of length.
(Incidentally, this was far and away the most technically complex summary of ballot measures I’ve ever seen. Several of these measures are subtle and involve several layers. The below is a general discussion only, not an attempt to go into the details of any one of them)
- Proposition 55 ($12.3b bond measure for schools, primarily construction thereof) I normally support more or less every education bond measure. It’s clearly one of the soundest investments a state can make in itself, and California clearly needs it more than most states. But this one, I’m afraid, I’m going to have to vote against. It’s dealing with an extraordinary amount of money (consider that the giant bond measure to try to stabilize the entire state economy is $15b) and contains what I can only describe as very fuzzy plans to repay it. The money is preallocated almost entirely to school construction. While we definitely need new schools, I notice there isn’t guaranteed conjoint money to hire teachers. The allocation plan between districts is similarly murky; the definition for “need” seems decidedly vague.
Most of all, this seems like bad fiscal policy. A bond measure this large without a clear repayment plan is going to lead to much worse financial trouble down the road, especially if it leads to a downgrading in the state’s bond status (which is a risk). That trouble would almost certainly fall on the schools, and far more severely than the current situation, and would very likely leave us with things like half-constructed schools or schools constructed but unstaffed. I don’t see any reason why any of the needs of the schools are best served by a single, behemoth bond measure and not a number of smaller local bond measures, each tailored to the needs of its district. The only real advantage to a statewide measure is large-scale redistribution of resources, and given the allocation policies in this bill, it’s not even clear if that would happen.
I recommend voting against this bill.
- Proposition 56 (Various complicated reforms of the budget process, #1) While the discussions of this bill talk a lot about how it will withhold salaries from the State Assembly until a budget is passed, that’s really somewhat of a red herring. The real meat of this measure is twofold: (1) Reducing the proportion of votes needed to pass a budget or change tax laws from two-thirds to 55% and (2) requiring that 25% of any annual budget surplus be redirected to a special fund which could be drawn upon in case of deficit, unless that special fund is already 5% of the previous year’s budget or more.
Part 1: The real point of this is to weaken the effects of Proposition 13, and for that reason alone I think this is a good idea. Prop 13 was passed a few decades ago, making it more or less impossible for the state to directly raise taxes. It’s had two primary effects: Forcing frequent bond measures (the only way the state can raise money, in essence) and, much more seriously, putting California in a situation where it derives most of its money from income taxes rather than wealth taxes. (e.g. property taxes) (The ratio of the two is one of the highest in the US, by quite a bit) The reason this is a problem is that income taxes fluctuate wildly from year to year, whereas wealth taxes stay steady; this means that there’s a lot of money in good years, and very little when things go bad, which tends to be precisely when we could really use some more money around.
Part 2: This is a pretty straightforward budget-stabilization measure, and it seems to do more or less what it claims. Given our reliance on income taxes, it should help level things off, but given that it only triggers in the event of having more money than is required “to maintain the current levels of General Fund expenditure” (i.e., having a surplus) it’s not likely to go off in the immediate future. (But see Prop 58, below)
The rest of this measure, while it sounds interesting, is basically window-dressing and not likely to do much. On the whole, I think this is reasonable policy, and in particular anything that weakens Prop 13 is good for the state. I recommend voting for this measure.