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Prop. 31 could be Californians' most important ballot decision

August 21, 2012|By Robert Greene
  • Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the defeat of his special election ballot measures.
Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the defeat of his special election… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

So what's on the Nov. 6 ballot? California's marquee measures are two competing tax increases, three crime-and-punishment reforms (including eliminating the death penalty) and a controversial initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods. In comparison, the already arid topic of state budget reform comes off as even drier and dustier. But Proposition 31 could, in the end, be Californians' most important ballot decision in years.

It's a head-scratcher, though. Should California have a two-year budget cycle instead of the current yearlong setup? Should we care? This is not one of those questions that gets the blood pumping or the fist shaking. Should conservatives like this? Should liberals? The only honest answer is a shrug of the shoulders, followed by a commitment to drive deep into the details and ferret out the policy implications. And let's be honest -- that sounds an awful lot like homework. Arguing for or against a tax increase is more fun. Or at least more interesting.

Proposition 31 would also allow cities, counties, school districts and other local governments to coordinate their services, and that could be good. And locals would be able to thumb their noses at state regulations if they could come up with their own regs that get the same job done. Intriguing. It would allow them to snub the state’s decisions on property tax allocation and let local governments to reallocate taxes among themselves. Very interesting. It would shift some state sales tax revenues from the state to local governments.

So, in essence, it would transfer a great deal of decision-making power from Sacramento back to the locals, ending a 35-year era of political centralization. That loss of power in city halls and school board auditoriums began after Proposition 13, when state lawmakers began inventing convoluted schemes to keep local governments and schools funded. When state government began doling out the dollars, it also took over much of the discretion on how those dollars are spent.

But Proposition 31 would also make the governor much more powerful by letting him or her unilaterally slash the state budget in case of a fiscal emergency. And it would force the Legislature to spend more time reviewing programs and less time passing bills.

If much of this sounds familiar, that's because many of the bits and pieces of Proposition 31 were batted about by Arnold Schwarzenegger (remember him?) and the good-government moderate reforming types at California Forward, the Think Long Committee for California and the Nicholas Berggruen Institute. Schwarzenegger floated the strong-governor portion in a 2005 ballot measure. It lost. The Times editorial page was not a fan.

So is this finally the levelheaded cavalry riding to the relief of self-immolating California? The wise centrists parting the spend-crazy Democrats and the tax-obsessed Republicans? Or perhaps just the wealthy and intellectual elite trying to tell us what’s best for us (read: what’s best for them)?

Geeky, wonky types like editorial writers live for this stuff. While we love homework, though, we're not above receiving some wise tutoring, so we invite insiders and outsiders, Californians and out-of-staters, voters, never-voters and everyone else to help us frame our questions for the proponents and opponents of Proposition 31, in advance of making our endorsement recommendation in the weeks before Nov. 6. Voters, especially, need to know what they're being asked to approve. We're looking for guidance -- on providing guidance.

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