As Americans, and particularly as Californians, we have a tendency to approach problems in two ways. The first is to throw money at it – or at least impose a new tax to coerce money from the state’s highest earners – and the other is to augment the state government’s authority to address the problem. Sometimes, it makes sense. California highways are too crowded, so we raise taxes to expand the highway system and allow the government to implement a special lane encouraging drivers to carpool. More often, though, our simplistic approaches don’t work quite as well. California’s student achievement levels plummet to all-time lows, raise state taxes for education purposes and allow the government to monitor school performance more closely and institute all kinds of changes that aren’t actually solutions.
California voters are allowed to make these decisions about appropriating funds and to yield more control to the government through our growing direct democracy and the tools of voter initiatives, legislative propositions and referenda – which bypass the decisions of the elected California legislators and impose the initiatives pending a simple majority of California voters. In theory – and in the Bush Doctrine – this is great. Democracy = good, everything else = bad.
But, in reality, when we bypass the elected representatives we have elected, we circumvent the ideals of the republic set up by the Founding Fathers, and make ourselves vulnerable to the very errors from which a republic is supposed to protect us. Why do we elect representatives? Because very few of us have the resources or desire to spend the time and energy necessary to understand every political nuance of relevance, and none of us is surrounded by a team of professionals whose job it is to help us understand those nuances. Nonetheless, these initiatives continue because we, as voters, get to feel empowered and the various interests pushing for or against each individual cause get the much easier task of convincing or manipulating a generally unconcerned California public.
In addition to hacking away at our glorious republic one proposition at a time, there is ample evidence to suggest that the prevalence of California’s voter initiatives has had detrimental and irreversible effects on the state’s budget. The propositions have paralyzed it into an unsurprising state of gridlock fumbling to operate under the voter mandates for high spending and the restrictions that have been voted in, prohibiting tax increases.
The latest and greatest example of these ill-intentioned efforts is Proposition 88. Classified under the general heading of help for our K-12 education system, the more powerful aspects of Prop 88 have nothing to do with education. The proposition practically reverses Proposition 13 – passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1978. It sets an important precedent in establishing a statewide tax – the first since 1910 – and it tramples on the establishment of federalism, seriously undermining the authority of localities operating within the state. Proposition 13, or the “People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation” was enacted in 1978, and has since provided a sound foundation for placing obstacles that make special interests’ free access to Californians’ tax dollars more difficult.
Even the stated purpose of the proposition is pretty shady, and certainly unnecessary. California’s education spending is at an all-time high. It has gone up 17 percent over the last two years alone, and has yet to demonstrate even the smallest correlation between spending and performance. Proposition 88 would create an additional $50 tax state-wide on every land “parcel,” meaning that anyone who currently pays property taxes would owe an extra $50 for each piece of land they own.
This kind of parcel tax has traditionally been a local tax, allowing those at the local level to decide how the revenue is best used. However, with Prop 88, the revenue – an estimated $470 million – goes to the state, and Sacramento gets to micromanage local decisions throughout the state. Thus, there is no relation between the money a city pays into the fund and what its schools receive, and cities will be paying to support districts from which they will receive no benefit. This kind of “ballot-box budgeting” consistently imposes new taxes on those already paying the highest rate in the state, which, at 10.1 percent, is currently also the highest in the nation.
Daily Nexus columnist Courtney Stevens knows exactly how the Founding Fathers like it.