FROM SACRAMENTO — Back in 1973, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan called a special election to sell voters on his proposed tax and spending limit. It was complex and convoluted.
Not even the great communicator could explain it. Opponents convinced many Californians it would lead to higher local taxes.
A few days before the election, a TV interviewer asked the governor: "Do you think the average voter really understands the language of the proposition?"
"No," Reagan responded. "He shouldn't try. I don't either."
That sealed the ballot initiative's fate. When the sponsor doesn't understand his own proposal, that's a good reason to vote "no." It failed by eight percentage points.
The lesson: When writing a ballot measure, keep it simple. Make sure it can be easily grasped by voters.
Fast forward 36 years. The core measure on the May 19 special election ballot, Proposition 1A, suffers from a similar affliction: lack of simplicity. That's because it has been burdened with so much Byzantine baggage that there's no consensus interpretation of what the measure is all about.
Prop. 1A really is about creating a spending cap and rainy day reserve to prevent the state from blowing all its tax revenue in good times and forcing it to hoard money for bad times. It's about slowing the growth of state government.
There's nothing in Prop. 1A, per se, about extending tax increases. But, at the insistence of Republican legislative leaders, a separate bill was passed that does, in effect, extend the taxes for up to two years if 1A passes. So, for voters, it's the same as if the tax extension actually was chiseled in 1A.
The Republican leaders shot themselves in the foot. Democrats wanted four years of tax increases. Republicans didn't want them for that long without spending controls. So they demanded that the tax hikes be cut off after two years if 1A failed. Also, they were afraid that public employee unions would fight the spending control measure unless they were appeased with additional tax revenue.
That strategy failed miserably, and now the GOP and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are in danger of losing what they long have coveted: a spending cap and meaningful rainy day fund.
Because of the linkage, 1A is vulnerable to charges from the right that it is a sneaky tax increase. And on the left, some major labor groups -- the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- so detest government spending controls that they're opposing 1A even if its defeat would mean the loss of tax revenue.
Another 1A side deal bought off the powerful California Teachers Assn. The CTA was given Prop. 1B, which would restore $9.3 billion in school program cuts starting in 2011. But that's only if Prop. 1A also passes because it contains the repayment mechanism: the rainy day fund.
So this was a classic case of the governor and Legislature desperately crafting compromise budget-balancing measures that, in the predawn hours, could be coerced and cajoled through the Legislature -- in a state that inanely requires a two-thirds majority for passage of money bills. It enabled the lawmakers, for a fleeting moment on paper, to fill a $42-billion deficit hole that soon began reemerging.
But the product was not a prime-time package ready for the voters. The trade-offs that click inside a legislative chamber aren't always easy to explain outside the Capitol. Voters tend to become confused or enraged.
If all the budget-fix measures fail on May 19, voters will have blown off steam and cooked the state's finances even more.
You'd think that if schools were being offered $9.3 billion by a ballot measure, their lobbies would be cheering in unified support. But you'd be wrong.
Symbolic of the mixed signals, ambiguities and divisiveness of 1A and its tangled links, the education community is sharply split.
Joe Nunez, chief lobbyist and political strategist for the 340,000-member CTA, says he isn't concerned about 1A's spending controls.
"A rainy day fund creates stability over time for school funding," he says. "If we'd had this rainy day fund in place, we'd have had a deficit that was more manageable."
But his counterpart with the 100,000-member California Federation of Teachers strongly disagrees. "We see 1A imposing a spending cap that assures that California schools remain among the most poorly funded in the country," says CFT political director Kenneth Burt.
And he adds, echoing what other public employee unions have complained about: "CTA went behind closed doors and cut a secret deal with the governor without talking to anybody."
Another opponent is the California Faculty Assn. Education already "is in a hole," says President Lillian Taiz. "Now they're dropping a manhole cover on us" with 1A. "This is madness."
The California School Boards Assn. also opposes 1A. Executive Director Scott P. Plotkin says a rainy day reserve would prevent schools from obtaining "adequate funding."
What about the $9.3 billion the props would provide to schools? "That's money we're entitled to anyway under Proposition 98," Plotkin says. Go to court and get it, he asserts.
But when state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell is asked why he favors Props. 1A and 1B, he answers simply: "$9 billion to schools."
The spending cap, O'Connell says, "is not rigid. It's a compromise -- probably the perfect compromise nobody's all that happy about."
Times change. Politicians change. But the same lesson remains: Keep it simple, not suspicious.