Blame the Voters, Pass the Buck

L.A. Times writers who bemoan "feel-good 'ballot box budgeting'" ignore the paper's longstanding support for bond-measure politics.

On May 20, the day after voters repudiated California's entire political class by trouncing five tax-and-gimmick propositions to close the state's $24 billion budget gap, the L.A. Times published a news analysis with the none-too-subtle headline "California voters exercise their power—and that's the problem."

Aside from failing to heed the recommendations by the editorial boards of the Times and most other large California dailies in the special election, the article blamed voters for on the one hand shackling the state legislature through 1978's landmark tax-restricting Proposition 13, while on the other passing "a patchwork of ballot measures directing billions of dollars to favorite causes, among them public schools and transportation projects."

This mixed-message complaint, with its emphasis on billions in ballot-box bond measures, has been common in the paper since election day. "Lawmakers are toxic, but voters helped get themselves into this fix," wrote Sacramento columnist George Skelton. "They've made it difficult by passing feel-good 'ballot box budgeting' initiatives that lock up tax revenue for certain programs—K-14 education, early childhood, after-school, mental health—and prevent the Legislature and governor from prioritizing. Voters also have sanctioned heavy borrowing. Schwarzenegger's $15-billion bond in 2004 to pay for daily expenses, plus $3 billion for stem cell research and tens of billions for infrastructure projects, including an exotic bullet train."

Business columnist Michael Hiltzik, in a piece riddled with separate problems, concluded that "In any event, far more blame for the deficit belongs to California voters. Year in, year out, they enact spending mandates at the polls, often without endowing a revenue source." Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, in a defense of the May 20 news analysis, reiterated that "voters' conflicting commands at the ballot box have been a big part of the problem" and that "lots of others who have analyzed the problem agree." The paper's editorial board snorted that "Perhaps now Sacramento has gotten the message. Unfortunately, the voters who sent it can't agree what it was."

In this blame-the-voter critique, with its palpable whiff of condescension, the L.A. Times has curiously excluded a presumably influential or at least easy-to-find California co-conspirator: The paper's own editorial board.

By my quick count (based on the Ballotopedia website; please check my math!), there have been at least 22 bond measures put to California voters since the year 2000, totaling $112 billion in bonds (not adjusted for inflation, and not including debt service and other tack-on goodies, which tend to roughly double the cost of most bonds over time). These initiatives range from a 2002 $200 million upgrade in voting technology, to a mammoth $19.925 billion package for roads, bridges, ports, and security (why not have it all!) in 2006's Proposition 1B. While expensive, these bond measures amount to only a fraction of the tax/budget tweaks that citizens have voted on over the past decade.

So how many of these 22 bond measures did the irresponsible, mixed-signaling voters approve? A full 21. Guilty as charged! How about the cooler and more rational heads on the L.A. Times editorial board?

Twenty.

Thumbing through those 20 endorsements and looking for any hint that bonds, you know, cost real money, can be an occasionally humorous exercise. Nearly $10 billion (and $20 billion in long-terms costs) for a pie-in-the-sky high-speed rail system at a time when housing prices and state coffers are in full collapse? Even though "the projections by the measure's opponents, led by the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, are much less sanguine and more persuasive" than those of proponents, well, let's just do it anyway! "If the line never gets built, the state's losses will be well under $2 billion. That's not too much to wager on a visionary leap that would cement California's place as the nation's most forward-thinking state."

Feel-good ballot-box initiatives, anyone? And by the way, $2 billion may not be "too much to wager," but it's more than this year's cuts in the school budget ($1.6 billion), or proposed cuts to CalGrants ($173 million) and school bus transportation ($300 million), all horrors you can read about daily in the L.A. Times.

Here's a typical snippet of economic analysis, in an endorsement of the feels-good-to-stick-it-to-George-W.-Bush stem cell research initiative Proposition 71: "By generating $3 billion for research into embryonic stem cells, this measure could lead not just to cures but innovations that would bolster the state's economy." As the Brits say, could do!

What about the two bond measures this decade the paper didn't support? One was the $12.3 billion Proposition 55, in 2004, which the Times said was "fully justified, but the state's financial situation is too precarious for approval of the issue now." No matter; it passed, as did yet another school bond (for $10.4 billion) two years later, with the Times' blessing.

The only other bond measure lacking support from California's premier newspaper was a $2.85 billion low-income housing initiative in 2006, one of five bonds on that particular ballot. Without boast or fear of contradiction, I can report that the paper would have hi-fived that measure, too, had I not been sitting on the editorial board then, arguing until I was Laker-purple in the face that incurring so much bond indebtedness so soon after Gray Davis' fiscal meltdown was courting budgetary disaster. It was because of this turd-in-punchbowlitis that the following sentence made it into the November 2006 endorsements editorial: "But $42.7 billion in new bonds would mean that nearly 6% of the state budget would be claimed for debt service each year." So instead, my colleagues went for $39.85 billion. It was the small victories that counted.

I mention all this not to tweak the noses of my old pals back home, but rather to highlight a persistent mindset among California's political class: It's everybody's fault but mine, and there is no such thing as yesterday.

So the Sacramento Bee berates foolish voters ("Do you feel better, now that you've gotten that out of your system?"), blaming them for mixing spending restraints with spending increases, yet nowhere in the harangue is it mentioned that the same paper, for example, went 10 for 10 in endorsing $65 billion worth of bond measures in 2002 and 2006. (Then, in a masterful feat of memory-scrubbing, the paper simply wipes that editorial off the website, replacing it with one bearing the goo-goo headline "Time for reform—not for blame.")

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  • Invisible Finger||

    After we're taxed at 100%, and we're still out of money, it'll still be too hard to raise taxes.

    So the only 2 options left will be killing the poor, or killing the rich and taking their stuff. But there's no reason the state can't do both.

  • ||

    Here's a cluestick: all those bond measures the voters passed... were bond measures. They were voter approved for specific short-term projects. The debt repayment does have a cost, but it is a minor factor in the budget crisis. The real culprit is the unwillingness to cut any spending.

    Blaming voter approved bonds is like blaming your $500 limit Home Depot Card for your bankruptcy, instead of the Visa Platinum that you ran all the way up to its $150,000 limit.

  • ||

    Would someone point out to the "if only we could raise taxes" crowd that the high tax states are in generally worse economic straits than the low tax states?

  • ||

    Matt, please keep up the good work!!

    "Only when the fountains of government abundance began to dry up, when through lack of funds and the impossibility of negotiating fresh loans the state was forced to check the extension of bureaucracy and to put a stop to public works, then and only then did the Italians realize what it meant to have allowed themselves to be made one of the most heavily taxed nations in the world." Guglielmo Ferrero, 1898

  • ||

    This article must have been researched by a fantastic intern!

  • 24AheadDotCom||

    I'm confused!

    Why would CA have to spend all that money?

    How could the CA legislature have the PoliticalPower to push through all that spending?

    What happened that gave the far-left so much power so that they could spend so much?

    It's a mystery!

    Oh, wait. I just realized! All those posts I made, detailing how that happened in CA and elsewhere.

    P.S. Sorry for letting reality intrude into Reason's very special world.

    P.P.S. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  • Fascitis Necrotizante||

    Eat a dick, Lonewacko.

  • Cal Lipigian||

    At least the papers are consistent. They endorse higher spending and higher taxes. The voters are schizo in that they approve the spending but not the means to pay for it.

  • ad hom||

    Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

    I don't need anyone to show me, it's obvious that your points are childish and anti-intellectual.

  • ||

    "Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature."

    You know, a normal person would wonder why it's so easy to "ad hom" them and try to correct that situation.

  • jk||

    A quibble about the CA bonds. CA voters certainly pass expensive bond measures, but there is no debt connected to a bond until someone buys the bond. Someone who knows how to track this down and isn't as lazy me might want to find out just how much of CA's potential bond debt has actually been purchased.

  • ||

    DirtyMexicans invaded California and AhnoldGuv likes it in the ass and ReasonMag wont ask HardQuestions.

    p.s. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  • Peter Orvetti||

    California's budget crisis is all about the failure of direct democracy. Voters get a list of questions saying, "Do you want the government to do this?" and check off yes, yes, yes. Then there's a question, "Can we raise taxes to pay for it?" and they vote no.

  • runescape gold||

    Has discusses it, starts from poetry, the peach blossom entered the poem. "girl of marriageable age, brilliant its China. Marries, suitable its home. The girl of marriageable age, has actually. Marries, suitable his/her husband and wife. The girl of marriageable age, its luxuriant, marries, suitable its family member". This first poem is the early China culture is mature when the good vulgar beautiful foreword performance, is the world overjoyed marriage standard song. The individual life, is only then obtains the real significance under a big background. Is interlinked from the person god, unites (life to the heart and life moves), struggles from the witchcraft, monopolizes the divine will from the sorcerer, is harmonious to the divine intervention and the will of the people, no longer is isolated concentrating on feeling world US, but contains has regarding the human affairs world spontaneous attention, the aware participation, integrates the human affairs world in which. Human affairs world US, is also live, is brimming with the natural breath, is popular US which the onion cage, the secret roam likely. This first poem regarding a good women's's sing, is also talks into her is one stretches is also sharp, enriches the vivid peach blossom, the visible peach blossom, moves Xingfa the natural life, brilliant young, is primitive, plain, the happy expression life feels. Feeling always a lively world life heart.

  • ||

    runescape gold,

    Congratulations. As a phishing spambot you have still managed to contribute more to the debate here with one post than the thousands of retarded posts made by Lonewacko in years of being a monomaniacal troll.

    P.S. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  • ||

    The problem is not direct democracy, it's democracy without minority protections. Once people can vote to steal money from other people for their own benefit, the ultimate perverse incentive is born.

    P.S. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  • Chad||

    The problem all politicians face is that the vast majority of the electorate wants more spending on just about everything, lower taxes, and reduced deficits.

    In other words, the average voter is a moron.

    In California, where the morons get to set policy almost directly via ballot initiatives, the result has been disasterous.

    Remember, 80% of adults cannot even calculate compound interest. How on earth can we expect these people to understand multi-billion dollar budgets?

  • ..||

    the thousands of retarded posts made by Lonewacko...

    ...and SugarFree.

  • ||

    See. I told you I would just be met with ad homs.

    P.S. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  • ||

    thousands of retarded posts

    Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    *pitches stone*

  • ||

    At most, I've only made hundreds of semi-retarded posts... along with thousands of posts so smart you can't stuff them into your brain holes.

    P.S. Any replies to this comment will most likely consist of ad homs, as libertarians concede my points and show their childish, anti-intellectual nature.

  • ||

    At most, I've only made hundreds of semi-retarded posts

    Throw one of those fake sponge rocks then.

  • EllisWyatt||

    "The problem all politicians face is that the vast majority of the electorate wants more spending on just about everything, lower taxes, and reduced deficits."

    More like the average politician THINKS that the electorate wants more spending on just about everything, and is therefore terrified of saying "NO". Many of the Republicans in Congress from 2000 to 2006 fell into this category.

  • Chad||

    More like the average politician THINKS that the electorate wants more spending on just about everything, and is therefore terrified of saying "NO". Many of the Republicans in Congress from 2000 to 2006 fell into this category.

    If you ask people what to cut, you inevitably get a list of things that are so small relative to the whole that they are irrelevant. The vast majority of the federal budget is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense and interest on the debt. While a few hard-core libertarians and Republicans might be willing to throw grandma onto the street, and a few radical lefties would actually make substantial military cuts, these people are few and powerless. A solid majority will not accept serious cuts in any of these programs, and cuts in anything else are too small to matter.

    Likewise with state and local expenditures. Cut teachers? Cops? Quit fixing roads? No no no!

    Worse yet, all of this mess is a result of our idiotic unwillingness to fork over a few more percent of our income in taxes.

  • ||

    One of the problems with government cock-suckers like Chad, who want to "fork over a few more percent of our income in taxes", is that they constantly spew lies like saying that opposition to SS is the same as "be[ing] willing to throw grandma onto the street"

    He must live in California.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    He's projecting, LM. We already know how much Chad hates his grandma.

  • ||

    Worse yet, all of this mess is a result of our idiotic unwillingness to fork over a few more percent of our income in taxes.

    Factually wrong. The problem isn't a shortage of tax receipts, which in CA and elsewhere have been quite healthy. The problem is excess spending; even if taxes had been higher, spending would have still outpaced it because that's just what politicians do.

  • Abner MacGillicuddy||

    "The vast majority of the federal budget is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense and interest on the debt."

    And the funny thing is that since the late 1970s the biggest chunk of the deficit each year has been interest on the debt. Especially during the high interest rate eighties.

    The fact is that the base portion of the debt was accrued pre-1980 thanks to WWII and LBJ's wars on Vietnam and poverty respectively.

    Since 1980 most of the increase in the debt has been due to the magic of compound interest.

    We are long since past any return to fiscal sanity without a long and painful adjustment. The Carter Administration was probably the last chance it was possible. And thanks in large part to The likes of Teddy K and Tip O'Neil it didn't happen.

    O, what the hell it was probably too late anyway. And Carter probably couldn't have pulled it off anyway.

  • LibertyMark||

    The governments of the the United States and of California throughout the 20th century where Great, Ever-Flowing, Teats-in-the-Sky, and millions upon millions of us clamped down on a teat, and proceeded to suck, suck, suck...

    Well, poor Bessie is tired. Her udder is dry; she has become a desiccated husk. It's time to put her down.

  • ||

    Since 1980 most of the increase in the debt has been due to the magic of compound interest.

    Well, at least until this year. There is a massive spike in debt accrued this year and every coming year under the bailouts and Obama spending plans.

  • Chad||

    R C Dean | June 3, 2009, 11:10am | #

    Factually wrong. The problem isn't a shortage of tax receipts, which in CA and elsewhere have been quite healthy. The problem is excess spending; even if taxes had been higher, spending would have still outpaced it because that's just what politicians do.


    That's an odd statement. Too much spending and too little taxes are two sides of the same coin. However, in the US, our tax rates are very low and our spening fairly low relative to the rest of the world, making making my argument more plausible than yours.

    California could solve its problems by taxing an extra $700 per person. Oh no, people might have to drive a slightly less obnoxious SUV! The economy would surely collapse into an nano-atomic dust pile if people had to do that!

  • johnl||

    Hey Matt don't forget redevelopment, which the LAT is also nearly always in favor of. Libertarians frequently complain about redevelopment agencies abuse of ED to take property from people without political connections at below market cost. But it's also a problem that they then sell property to politically connected people at an even lower cost, making up the difference by grabbing property taxes that would otherwise go to other taxing agencies (like the state).

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Chad, you cocksucker.

    I do not drive an SUV, in fact I drive one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market. Yet every time I fill up my gas-tank, I pay the state of California 50c per gallon. I pay about $300+ a month in taxes as it is as well as another $400 every January when I re-register my car. In addition, I pay 9% on everything I buy and what I get out of all of this is umm.... next to nothing. So first off, you can eat a dick for suggesting I should pony up another $700 so that a state which has done exactly the opposite of what I have voted for & written my elected representatives to do can keep over spending.

    Secondly, no Chad, taxes & spending *aren't* just two sides of the same coin. I understand how you could think that, but in practical reality, an extra $700 from the taxpayers simply encourages government to spend more. Then next year, it's another $700 and the year after that it's an extra $1400...

    It's sad how little you seem to understand how any of this works.

  • Scarpe Nike Italia||

    is good

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