Scrambling to close multibillion-dollar budget gaps, state lawmakers in recent years have tapped any source they could get their hands on — including funds set aside for emergency housing, lead poisoning prevention and phone service for the poor and the disabled. Tired of being at the wrong end of the fiscal yo-yo, city and county officials are pushing an initiative — Proposition 22 — that would bar the state from diverting certain types of local revenue. Their frustration is understandable, but Proposition 22 isn't the right solution.
State and local budgets have been intertwined since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. As state budget problems have intensified, though, lawmakers have increasingly tapped property tax dollars and fuel tax revenue (including the portion allocated to local governments) to ease the burden on the state's general fund. For example, the Legislature generated $3.6 billion for education programs in 2009 by borrowing property taxes and shifting redevelopment dollars.
Voters have twice approved propositions that limit the state's ability to redirect fuel and property tax revenue, with a limited exception for emergencies. Proposition 22 would eliminate that flexibility, barring the state from borrowing property taxes or reducing the share received by redevelopment agencies, which finance efforts to reduce blight. It also would funnel fuel taxes into a trust fund that would be all but immune to Sacramento's meddling.
According to the state Legislative Analyst's Office, the measure would allocate $1 billion more for transportation projects from the general fund and dedicate more local revenue to redevelopment agencies. Diverting fuel taxes out of the general fund, however, would cut the guaranteed funding for schools by an estimated $400 million a year, opponents of the proposition say.
It borders on a bait-and-switch to tax voters to pay for something they favor — such as filling potholes — and then use the money for something else. But Proposition 22 goes too far in its efforts to shield transportation and redevelopment projects from the cuts that are shrinking government programs throughout the state. It's hard to see why redevelopment agencies' ever-growing share of local property taxes — 12% statewide by one estimate — is more worthy of protection than school budgets, worker training programs or any of the other public services coming under the knife. Nor does it make sense to force the Legislature to use the general fund instead of fuel tax revenue to pay off existing transportation bonds, as Proposition 22 would do.
There's much to dislike about how lawmakers have handled the seemingly never-ending fiscal crisis. Voters have made the task harder than it should be, however, by approving propositions that riddle the budget with exceptions, carve-outs and special allocations. Proposition 22 would be the latest in that lamentable series. The Times urges a no vote.
The Times' endorsements in the Nov. 2 election are collected upon publication at latimes.com/opinion.