Time to Take Initiative on Initiatives

It's commonplace for people to blame the legislature and governor for our state's budget mess, and some of that blame is deserved.

But a sizable amount of culpability for California's fiscal mess falls on the public's shoulders because of initiative process and the way we respond to it.

More times than not, initiatives render the legislature ineffective. They rarely attach a funding source for a proposed program. This single omission has helped to place California in a fiscal straightjacket.

Flexibility is tossed aside in the name of accountability. That sounds good in theory but the process creates more problems than solutions.

A couple of examples will help make the point.

In 1994, the voters passed Proposition 184, California's "Three Strikes" Act. Under the terms of this act, anyone who has served time for two felonies, will be incarcerated for a minimum of 25 years if found guilty of a third felony. As many as 7,500 prisoners today fall under the third strike provision.

At $50,000 per inmate (that's the amount it costs to house a prisoner), we're talking about $375 million per year for 25 years or more. And many are serving their third strike for drug possession--not sales or manufacture.

Did anyone ever consider the cost when this proposition appeared on the ballot?  Probably not.

Here's another. In 2000, the voters enacted Proposition 21, the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act," which among other changes, created new categories of crimes that would require incarceration of juveniles in county jails for long periods of time.

The California State Legislative Analyst's Office calculated a cost of $5 billion over the next decade, with much of it absorbed by counties. Did anyone think about attaching a new funding source for this change in the law, especially for local governments where voters have repeatedly curbed their ability to raise funds?  Probably not.
Few issues are more important than public safety, but we're managing this and countless other policy areas through a process that doesn't attach funding to new programs and services.

This dilemma can be solved by requiring all proposed spending initiatives to include the new funding sources for any program that requires new spending. The statement should appear with a summary of the proposition.

For example, to change the state's incarceration for "Three Strikes" convictions, the expected cost of $375 million annually will be paid by increasing the state sales tax by one-tenth of a cent. Or to administer Proposition 21, the state will need to increase the sales tax by one cent. These are only examples, perhaps the changes would come through higher income taxes, property taxes, or new fees.

The point is simply this: When Californians are provided with an initiative that calls for new spending, they Should be told at the same time how the money will be raised. Only then will we be truly able to decide the merits of the proposal.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst at NBC Bay Area.

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