Government Spending

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.

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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.")

Day after day, rather than starting from the fact that the California government spends too much money and has therefore run out, writers and commenters have engaged in a ritual of denial, scare-mongering, attacking (both the aforementioned voters and "small government zealots"), then insisting that the real problem is that it's so hard to raise taxes. If any spending problem is grudgingly acknowledged, blame shifts swiftly to the voters.

Well, voters may be an unruly and contradictory lot, deserving no small amount of responsibility for California being nearly ungovernable, but they aren't the only ones with blood on their hands. And they're certainly not the only ones putting these things on the ballot in the first place–of the 22 bond measures under survey, a full 18 were placed there by a vote of the legislature. With a stack of cash northward of $100 billion a year at stake, it's no wonder that the preferred lobbying method of many a public sector union and activist group is to cadge still more billions through the ballot box, a process that has historically received rubber stamp from editorial board and voter alike. Until now.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason.