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Anti-Death Penalty Budgeting Bungle

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Anti-Death Penalty Budgeting Bungle

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Supporters of a ballot initiative to eliminate the death penalty in California are beginning to gather the signatures necessary to qualify it for the November 2012 ballot.

Polls show many Californians have no moral objections to the death penalty, so this initiative makes a series of strong, practical, fiscal arguments.

Among them: the death penalty is so difficult to administer that it's an "empty promise" in California (we have it on the books, but don't much use it). It's more costly to have the death penalty than not. The state could save tens of millions of dollars in the budget by eliminating it.

Sounds good, until you read the details of the initiative and discover that, in an anti-death penalty measure of all things, there's a jarring example of bad budget policy.

Specifically, the initiative takes money out of the general fund -- which is to say, out of the famously distressed and unbalanced state budget -- and puts it into a special fund called the "SAFE California Fund."

Over four years, from 2012 to 2016, a total of $100 million would be taken from the budget for this fund. These funds, according to the text of the initiative,

"shall be used exclusively for the purposes of this Act and shall not be subject to appropriation or transfer by the Legislature for any other purpose."

What are the purposes? To speed the solving of cases of rape and murder.

Who could argue with such a good cause? No one -- which is why it's smart politics to have this sort of thing in the act.

But it's terrible policy.

The act gives the attorney general -- not the legislature or governor -- control over the money, essentially giving a state official the ability to influence how local police departments allocate resources.

Most significant, it ties the hands of the legislature and by extension the public.

What if lawmakers, responding to public opinion, want to use this state money to offset cuts in the university systems that are preventing some Californians from being able to afford college? 

The answer is: they can't. Which is why this isn't just a death penalty initiative. It's a budget initiative that provides savings with one hand -- and then takes money away from virtually every other function of government.

This, of course, isn't new. Initiatives routinely do this sort of thing -- which is one reason why California is in perpetual budget crisis.

The good news? There's still time for backers of this initiative to delete this provision and refile this initiative.

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