Lessons from the election

California is gaining a reputation as a state that can’t get its act together

To hear the state’s politicians talk, especially Republicans, the drubbing voters gave the budget measures last week sent a loud and clear message: No more taxes. But is that really what voters were saying?

It’s hard to tell. Remember that much of the opposition to the measures came from left-wing groups such as the SEIU—the state’s largest labor union—and the California Federation of Teachers, which both opposed Proposition 1A’s cap on spending.

That was one of the ironies of the election—that some of the state’s most progressive groups got in bed with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and other right-wing anti-tax groups to defeat the measures, which were supported by such mainstream groups as the state Chamber of Commerce and the League of California Cities.

The leftists were hoping that, by causing total disruption in Sacramento, they could force removal of the two-thirds vote requirement for budget passage and clear the way for more taxes and services, not fewer. The anti-tax advocates were hoping they could “starve the beast” by forcing such drastic spending reductions that state government would become nearly irrelevant as a regulatory and welfare institution.

In a certain sense, these two poles reflect the ambivalent nature of the electorate. On one hand, according to the latest Field Poll, most Californians oppose new taxes. On the other hand, they oppose cuts in spending to all state-funded programs except two: prisons and parks. That the two positions are mutually exclusive apparently eludes most voters.

A more likely explanation of the election results is that the public was furious at Sacramento for foisting a set of incomprehensible measures on them and telling them to finish the budgeting process the Legislature itself seemed unable to complete. It’s hard to blame the people, but they seem unaware that, by passing a series of ballot-box budgeting measures in recent years, voters have largely tied legislators’ hands.

No doubt it felt good to say “no” last week. But it also pretty much guaranteed that California will be facing budget problems for years—and maybe even decades—to come. Already the 2009-10 deficit has ballooned to nearly $25 billion. The governor could fire every state employee, including prison guards and university professors, and close every government office and still not save that much money.

California is gaining a reputation as a state that can’t get its act together. Of all the many problems it now faces, including devastating cutbacks in health care for the poor, the biggest in the long term may be cutbacks in education spending on all levels. The decline in the state’s once-vaunted education system, up to and including its colleges and universities, will inevitably result in the loss of the human capital that long has underwritten the state’s economic prosperity. When companies can’t find skilled workers here, they’re likely to move elsewhere.

Even the federal government is beginning to write off the state. First Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner refused to backstop any short-term borrowing to cover the $6 billion lost when the budget measures failed. More recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that unless the state adequately funded education, it would receive no further money from his $100 billion education stimulus pot.

For more than 30 years, Republican ideologues have been telling us the state has been on a tax-and-spend orgy. While it’s certainly true that lawmakers sometimes have spent when they should have saved money, it’s simply not true that spending has gone up disproportionately. When inflation and population growth are factored in, along with the $15 billion in spending cuts the Legislature made in February, California spends less per capita than it did a decade ago. The fact that it’s among the lowest states in per-capita education funding testifies to that.

The time has come for Californians to decide what kind of state we want. Do we want it to continue to slide into decay and disarray? Or do we want it to prosper and provide the services that a growing and diverse population needs?

If it’s the latter, we need to speak up. Now.