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No to a Budget Strangler

September 14, 2003

Anyone who has taken a car trip out of state and hit smooth riding across the border knows California's infrastructure problems are serious. Anyone who swims at Orange County's often-closed beaches knows that its sewer systems are inadequate, and in some places crumbling. The question is not whether there's a problem but how to fix it. Proposition 53 on the Oct. 7 ballot is the wrong solution because it would further hamstring the state's finances.

The dollars to fix roads, water pipes and sewer systems would be committed from the beleaguered general fund, already choked by past ballot propositions such as Proposition 98, which requires that more than 40% of state spending go to public schools. Proposition 13 pushes from the other direction, limiting state revenue.

The state does need to finance more repairs through the annual budget and less through bond issues. But Proposition 53's fatal flaw is that it dictates spending through the state Constitution.

The ballot measure is the product of Assemblymen Keith Richman (R-Northridge) and Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg), about the only solid bipartisan team in the Legislature. They are doing a good job of getting bipartisan support to tackle long-range problems, not an easy trick in the era of term limits. They've been willing to tackle legislative redistricting, budget reform, even term limits. But on this issue they're wrong.

Beginning in fiscal 2006-07, Proposition 53 would transfer 1% of the general fund, or an estimated $850 million, to a special infrastructure fund for distribution to state and local projects. That figure increases to 3%, or several billion dollars, by 2013-14.

The plan would be suspended when revenue fell as much as 5% below estimated income, as it has in the last few years. That doesn't ease the underlying issue, the rigidity of budgeting at the ballot box. Each mandate leaves less for the state university system, the environment, forest fire control and the million other things under the umbrella of general government.

It's true that state general fund spending for infrastructure from bridges to hiking trails to state office buildings has fluctuated in recent years from nothing in 1992-93 and 1993-94 to $511 million in 2000-01 and back to virtually nothing now. That's because the state's revenue has risen and plummeted wildly. It's not a problem that can be cured with a constitutional mandate.

Richman and Canciamilla will be developing structural budget reforms in the coming year. They should consider the state's shabby infrastructure as part of that process. The budget needs fewer strings and mandates, not more. The Times urges a "no" vote on Proposition 53.

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