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A California election left open to interpretation

Liberals and conservatives can add their own spin to Tuesday's voting, but the state is still in the hole financially.

May 20, 2009

Perhaps now Sacramento has gotten the message. Unfortunately, the voters who sent it can't agree what it was.

Of course, some are only too happy to interpret the results of Tuesday's election. From the right, small-government zealots lecture smugly that California has gotten its comeuppance for years of prodigal spending and unrighteous living. Liberals, they exult, have taxed and spent the state into fiscal collapse, and the only route now toward solvency is to eliminate cushy services and freebies that sap the entrepreneurial energy of the populace.

What utter nonsense. These critics conveniently forget that spending has grown with the population and with healthcare costs that outpace the rate of inflation. As private hospitals fail, those costs are increasingly picked up by government at public emergency rooms. Some "spending" actually comes in the form of tax cuts, such as the reduction of the vehicle license fee that propelled Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger into office; that cut increased the state deficit yet showed up on the books as an expenditure because it de-funded nearly $6 billion in local support that the state then had to backfill.

As for those luxurious extras the state supposedly doles out, they largely consist of public education, which parents consistently demand, and safety-net services such as Medi-Cal, which become more necessary in times of economic distress. The so-called tax-and-spenders cut Medi-Cal earlier this year, but the cuts were reversed in court, and further slashing of most state programs will result in penalties that cut off badly needed federal funds. Meanwhile, the same conservatives who scold about rampant spending have larded up budgets with new unfunded mandates to arrest more people and imprison them for longer.

From the left, activists insist that Tuesday's balloting reveals public willingness to eliminate the two-thirds threshold for legislative budget and tax votes, and then to roll back 30 years' worth of citizen initiatives, from Proposition 13 to Proposition 8, while raising taxes on the wealthy. But it's a stretch to squeeze that message from this election. Besides, those who want a more progressive tax structure must acknowledge that they would be making revenues more volatile and the budget less stable when the economy tanks.

The actual message from voters may be much less useful. Californians were happy in 2006, when cash abounded. Today's irritation with politicians and their proposals probably stems more from high unemployment and scarce cash than any fundamental political shift.

As liberals and conservatives each try to claim credit for the election results, they go back to their respective rhetorical corners. Now, though, those corners are at the bottom of a $21-billion hole. Climbing out of it will require painful and costly -- but temporary -- program cuts. Staying out of it will require restructuring of government and the budget process. And it will demand yet another attempt by the warring factions at compromise.

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