California has become such a basket case that outsiders are starting to parachute in and report on the tales of woe from our deficit-wracked, economically stagnant and politically dysfunctional state. For instance, the Economist, a British magazine, published a recent cover story on California titled “Where it all went wrong.” It pins the state’s woes on direct democracy and on one initiative in particular — 1978’s tax-limiting Proposition 13, which is a typical punching bag for those spouting conventional wisdom.
How does one look at the state of California and its current woes without mentioning the power of the state’s public employee unions, which control the Legislature and have driven spending on pay and benefits to unsustainable levels? How do you not focus on Democratic dominance of virtually every level of government?
At least the writers were honest about their premise: “It is tempting to accuse those doing the governing. … But … the main culprit has been direct democracy. … Since 1978, when Prop. 13 lowered property-tax rates, hundreds of initiatives have been approved on subjects from education to the regulation of chicken coops.”
The Economist wants the Legislature to have more power and offers a few process-oriented changes, but the piece is noteworthy mainly because it is part of a new wave of anti-Prop. 13 fervor. Expect more of it as the state continues to struggle and as the money keeps running out.
I’m not a huge fan of direct democracy, which was a progressive-era idea that caused more problems than it solved. But it’s ironic that modern-day progressives are most vociferous in their attacks on the initiative process. I always get a kick out of those “Repeal Prop. 13” bumper stickers popping up on cars around northern California, no doubt mostly emblazoned on the bumpers of public employees desperate for the state to find new sources of cash to pay their pensions. It’s hard to believe these progressive critiques of direct democracy come from a sudden interest in civics. They come from frustration that California’s voters — despite reliably electing a strong majority of liberal Democrats to most offices — tend to be tight with a dollar at the voting booth.
Have these lefties ever considered what would actually happen if their dreaded Prop. 13 were repealed? Property taxes would soar. Property values would plunge. Commercial property values would plunge also, taking jobs with them at a time when the state struggles with record-high unemployment. The steady stream of people fleeing to other states would escalate, although a further drop in property values would make it harder for many Californians to escape. Meanwhile, the same state government that overspends its budget in good times and bad would burn through the new infusion of cash — leaving the same structural budget deficit that we’ve endured for years now.
There are two basic schools of thought in reforming our state. There are those who think that the state simply has a revenue problem. We just need to find ways to reduce the roadblocks to such revenue by “reforming” Prop. 13 or reducing the ability of voters to restrict state spending. And then there are those of us who believe that the state must stop spending and regulating itself into oblivion, that the key is reforming government, cutting spending and breaking the power of the unions.