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California Voters Heave a Few Bricks at Sacramento

June 12, 1988|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe directs the Study of State Legislative Leadership at USC's Institute of Politics and Government.

The spirit of Proposition 13 is alive and well--and voting against Sacramento. The results of Tuesday's vote on state ballot measures make clear that California taxpayers are reluctant to let politicians decide how to spend public money on anything--education, transportation or their own election campaigns.

The tax revolt that began in 1978, and its political fallout, shifted fiscal power to the people. Tuesday's results indicate that control of government spending will rest there awhile. Voters rejected propositions 71 and 72, two attempts to raise the limits on state spending imposed by a 1979 initiative written by Paul Gann, despite the fact that Gann himself sponsored 72.

While voters rejected carte-blanche spending increases, they selectively favored earmarked proposals. A record $2.2 billion in bonds was approved; bonds are not subject to the Gann spending limits. This allows the state's politicians to continue to avoid the "poison pill" of tax increases, but ultimately may add more than $4 billion to the state's debt.

With little room to maneuver under the constraints of the Gann limits, and with a $2.3-billion shortfall looming over state budget deliberations, Californians will be asked to fund more programs by bond issues. But this process, budgeting by plebiscite, in a society as large and diverse as California, is a risky one, particularly when low public awareness of the issues is coupled with a record low voter turnout, as seemed to be the case on Tuesday.

The best example of how much the governor and Legislature have been disenfranchised from fiscal policy-making may be Proposition 70, a $776-million park bond issue that received 65% approval in Tuesday's balloting. For the first time in 74 years, the initiative process was used to raise park acquisition and development funds, bypassing the legislative process completely.

Voters refused, almost across the board, to accept direction from the state's political leaders. The votes on propositions 68 and 73, dealing with campaign finance reform, as well as those on 71 and 72, fit that pattern. If the defeat of 71 and 72 underscored voter antipathy toward the size and complexity of California government, the favorable response to propositions 68 and 73 signaled a vote against the current brand of politics in this state. And by giving Proposition 73, which bans public funding of campaigns, a larger yes vote than Proposition 68, which requires public funding, voters seemed to be applying the "Proposition 13 mentality" to political reform. They registered their vote against the political system, but they also registered their lack of trust in politicians and sent them yet another message that voters don't want to give them any more taxpayers' money to spend.

California's governor and top legislative leaders drew the line on campaign finance reform. Voters promptly positioned themselves on the other side of that line. Although some analysts argued that Democratic legislative leaders and their candidates will be hurt more than Republicans by the ban on fund transfers between candidates--required by both initiatives--Los Angeles Times exit polling indicated that Democrats deserted those leaders, voting almost equally in favor of 68 and 73. Republicans were slightly opposed to 68, but ignored the governor to support 73 by a 3-2 margin.

Perhaps the biggest loser in last Tuesday's initiative war was Gov. George Deukmejian. Having opposed both propositions 68 and 73, he found himself on the losing side of the battle over campaign finance reform. While he sided with voters in opposing bids to raise government spending limits, he put his political prestige on the line by spearheading the fight to approve Proposition 74, calling for bonds to fund transportation improvements--a radical departure from California's traditional pay-as-you-go financing, built around gasoline taxes and highway user fees. The proposition lost by a hair--short just 1,458 votes from more than 5.1 million cast. Only once since 1980 have voters rejected a state bond measure, but even if the bond issue's fate is reversed in the state canvas next month, there is no resounding mandate for the governor and his policy leadership.

Another loser was Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. He counted on Proposition 71 to catapult him into statewide political leadership; there was no great thrust. Proposition 71, the brainchild of Honig and school, labor and government groups, would have adjusted the state spending limit to allow about $700 million more for public programs, presumably with education having first call. Its narrow defeat deprived Honig of badly needed education funding and frustrated any aspirations he might have entertained about becoming a potential candidate for governor or the secretary of education in a Dukakis administration.

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