Thursday, April 23, 2009

I'm not really qualified for this kind of work

In a few weeks, California's love affair with direct democracy will be rekindled with a special election featuring six budget-related propositions.

I'm no fan of the annual (this year, semi-annual) Propapalooza; in fact, I don't really like voter referenda very much at all. Most of the issues (like the budget) are really too complicated and too interdependent for me to actually evaluate the effect accurately. The text of the propositions is beyond obfuscatory; I'm still trying to decipher sections like:

(h) If the Supplemental Education Payment Account is established by subdivision (a) on October 1, 2011, and on October 1 annually thereafter, the Comptroller shall transfer from the Budget Stabilization Fund to the Supplemental Education Payment Account the lesser of the following:

(1) A sum equal to 1.5 percent of General Fund revenues for the current fiscal year
(2) The amount of total supplemental education payments set forth is subdivision (a) of Subsection 8.3 remaining to be allocated

Byzantine language aside, once one decodes the legalese, there is still the question of the actual impact of these propositions. For example, take Proposition 1E-- it would redirect mental health services funding earmarked by Prop 63 to other kinds of mental health services not included in Prop 63 (namely, the Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment Program for children and young adults). What to do? What is really going on here, and what is the real impact going to be? I can imagine that it is entirely possible that Prop 63 and Prop 10 (voter-approved budget earmarks and funding rules) are somewhat inflexible, and some retooling of the language or flexibility is needed to ensure that some necessary programs actually get funded instead of axed. I could also imagine that Prop 1E is intended to gut mental health services funding as a cost-reducing strategy-- maybe it does fund the children's Early and Periodic Screening program, but only nominally, while cutting funding for the majority of programs. It is really hard to tell what is going on.

This Prop 1E conundrum highlights the problem, though-- the budgeting process for a large, complicated government entity (like the State of California) should not be left to direct democracy. It isn't a question of voters not being informed or smart enough; we, as voters, can't contextualize these proposals and we can't make even educated guesses about the true impact vis-a-vis the entire hundred billion dollar state budget. We elect professional legislators to read, learn, debate, and understand these issues in context. Someone thinks we need Prop 1E to retool the budget requirements of Prop 10 and Prop 63; later on down the line, maybe we need another to fix 1E. I'm sure most people that attempt to put propositions on the ballot are well-meaning (except for the Prop 8 asshats); having a voter-approved ballot measure that directly requires the state to fund certain worthy causes feels good-- but it isn't, in practice, a good system by which to create a good budget. Let the legislature work out the budget; it's not a perfect system, but it works a little better than creating constitutional mandates for certain projects and programs over less popular and less financially powerful issues. While we're at it, we could also stop crushing the civil rights of a portion of our population by a statewide up-or-down vote.