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The Battle for California : Revoting the Revolution

June 05, 1988|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion. Parts of this article will be included in an Atlantic magazine story

WASHINGTON — If the November election is as close as many observers expect, then it may all come down to which way California goes. And California could go either way. George Bush's strength in California can be summarized in two words: Ronald Reagan. The California Republican Party is a shadow of Reagan, and Bush has been careful to stay inside that shadow. But California voters are notoriously trendy. They got tired of Reagan once before, in 1974. After Reagan's two terms as governor, Californians decided to try something different. They elected Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

So what kind of message might work for the Democrats in California? Clinton Reilly, a Democratic political consultant, said, "Your message must be for government to help business grow, to help the economy grow, to be a partner with business in creating jobs and growth. You also need a strong common-sense profile--tough on crime, for efficiency and economy in government." In other words, a middle-class message.

The key to California politics is, of course, the state's vast middle class. It was their revolt that created Proposition 13, the Gann initiative and, ultimately, the Reagan revolution. The concerns of middle-class Californians have clearly been drifting away from taxes and toward public services. But how far? "The middle class feels short-changed," said State Comptroller Gray Davis, who used to be Brown's chief of staff. "How can their children compete in an information society if 46 other states are investing more in the future (education) than we are? Trauma centers are closing down. We're 50th in per capita spending on roads. At some point, that will permit a more progressive use of the money that comes in."

Proposition 13, passed 10 years ago on June 6, 1978, had a profound psychological impact on California politicians. They became terrified of taxing and spending, even to the point of allowing government to deteriorate. "It changed the nature of politics in this state," said Davis. "The operative question for Democrats used to be, 'Will you raise taxes?' Then the question became, 'Will you lower taxes?' "

According to Davis, who is now contemplating a run for governor, the aggregate revenue loss resulting from Proposition 13 and its aftermath amounts to about $20 billion a year--or about half the current state budget. The 1978 property tax limitation measure also gave rise to the Gann initiative, passed by 70% in 1979. The Gann initiative limits the amount of money state and local governments can spend to an amount equivalent to the 1978-79 budget--adjusted for inflation and population growth. The spending cap can be overridden only through special local initiatives.

Is it now safe for Democrats in California to talk about more spending? The answer seems to be, "Yes, but . . . ." But what? "It had better be pretty specific," said Tom Quinn, a state official under Brown. "For instance, if I'm paying five cents more per gallon of gasoline, show me how it's going to take me half an hour instead of an hour to get to work five years from now."

Public works like freeways and public services like crime prevention are fine. They serve a specific, visible need and are universally available. "Social programs" are not fine. They are programs aimed at creating social change and benefiting particular groups. That is precisely the lesson that national Democrats learned, or should have learned, from the Reagan era. The only politically secure programs are "entitlements" that benefit everybody, such as Social Security and Medicare. It is much harder to sustain support for targeted programs like urban mass transit.

The reverse is true of taxes. It is dangerous to propose a general tax increase. Instead, talk about user fees, designated revenues and requiring employers to pay mandated benefits.

The message to national Democrats is, if you want to sell your program in California, keep your spending as broad as possible and your taxes as specific as possible. Don't threaten middle-class taxpayers with a broad-based tax increase. And don't promise new programs to create social change. Just promise programs that will serve social needs.

In fact, California politicians may have become overly cautious about spending. Voters are already taking matters into their own hands. In the view of Barbara Y. Johnson, chief aide to Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and a longtime Democratic activist, spending initiatives represent "a focused repair job, the potholes of our society being fixed by the people." Initiatives enable localities of increase specific taxes in order to fund specific projects.

Initiatives represent exactly the kind of taxing and spending program that works under the Proposition 13 system--specific taxes earmarked to pay for universally accessible benefits, like highway reconstruction or education.

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