Friday, July 20, 2007

Lawmakers need to get a spine in budget talks

George Skelton
Capitol Journal

June 11, 2007

Sacramento — As Capitol politicians begin earnest negotiations on a new state budget, about the last place they should look for guidance is the public. They might as well consult a Ouija board. Or Tarot cards.

Most voters don't know squat about state spending and taxes.

They haven't really thought through how their tax dollars are spent or should be, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California confirms.

But while the public basically doesn't have a clue, it shouldn't need to. If our democratic system of representative government were working as the founders set it up, lawmakers would be using their best judgments. They wouldn't habitually be holding their fingers to the wind, trying to measure public opinion.

They wouldn't increasingly feel compelled to spend political bucks — mostly offerings from special interests — on focus groups and polls, trying to dissect every voter thought, hone every buzz word, discover the most marketable nuance. They'd go with their gut, heart and head.

Voters merely would be pointing in the direction they wanted their elected representatives to lead. They would not be directly running the government through ballot box budgeting and other so-called citizen initiatives that almost always are sponsored by some special interest trying to beat the system of representative government.

Beating the system is one motivation. Another is making a buck. There's a growing initiative industrial complex in California that is enriching political consultants and fattening the membership lists and bank accounts of organized lobbies.

Voters simply aren't up to the task of deciding details, the poll by the nonpartisan public policy institute shows conclusively.

"California voters admit to knowing little or nothing about some of the most critical policy issues," says pollster Mark Baldassare, the PPIC president.


• Most voters want to spend more money building roads and other infrastructure. But their preferred way of paying for it is "using only surplus budget funds."

Sacramento hasn't run a surplus in years and is facing a deficit of roughly $4 billion in the budget now being negotiated. The news got even worse last week when the Schwarzenegger administration announced that tax receipts for the current fiscal year are running $764 million short.

• Those surveyed were told that in the last 10 years, voters have approved $93 billion in state bonds for public works. This was "just the right amount," 43% said, while 28% contended it was "too much." Yet, 64% favored Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to sell an additional $43 billion in public works bonds.

"Many voters may be thinking about bonds as free money," Baldassare says.

Indeed, 84% concede to possessing only "some" or "very little" knowledge of bond financing. The cost of a 30-year bond is roughly double the principal, adding in interest.

• Voters favor spending more money on education, "health and human services" and public works.

But they also think there should be a strict limit on spending increases.

• Nearly three-fourths of voters think prison overcrowding is a "big problem." And about two-thirds applaud the governor and Legislature for recently agreeing on an $8-billion prison bond package.

At the same time, only one-third say the state should spend more money on prisons.

• The electorate is virtually split over the question of whether Sacramento should raise taxes and provide more services, or cut both taxes and services. The edge goes to higher taxes and more services: 48% to 44%.

But 55% think it would be a bad idea to make it easier to raise local taxes by lowering the voter requirement from a two-thirds majority to 55%.

• Only one-third of voters know that the state's biggest spending item is K-12 schools and its largest revenue source is the personal income tax.

Not surprisingly, given the lack of knowledge they've bothered to acquire, "state budget, deficit and taxes" rank way down the voters' list of "most important issues" facing California. No. 1 is immigration, which Sacramento has virtually no control over. Budget-taxes ranks No. 10.

Right here, I'll kiss up to my readers by acknowledging that many of your e-mails exhibit more detailed knowledge of state spending and taxes than some pols who work in the Capitol. Blame term limits and inexperience.

That said, trying to detect a voter consensus and translate it into good public policy is a formula for fiscal chaos, which is what we have in Sacramento.

Most voters are living in a fantasy world of denial, expecting pleasure without pain — new highways without paying more, locking up criminals without building cells.

Demagogic politicians and ratings-driven talk radio hosts feed the myth of "fraud, waste and abuse." Just eliminate that and there'll be plenty of money, they shout. Schwarzenegger, with great flourish, looked for the waste and embarrassingly couldn't find much.

"I've never bought the idea that governors and legislators are unresponsive to the voters," says Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento. "A better argument can be made that governors and legislators are overly responsive.

"It's not that they don't care what people want. It's that there really is no consensus about exactly what they do want."

What they need is representatives with the courage to lead — not with cold feet meekly following the confused.,1,186123.column?coll=la-util-news-local
From the Los Angeles Times

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