Taxes Are Sexy — Compared to Budgets

People in Sacramento love to talk about and report upon new polls that show the relative political strengths and weakness of the three competiting tax-hike initiatives that appear headed to the November ballot.

The latest obsession is a new Public Policy Institute of California poll showing that Gov. Brown's initiative may be weaker than first thought.

If only such energy were devoted to what the initiatives say, and what they might do.

The tax pieces of the initiative are well known. But each measure is long and complicated -- and contains things that aren't about taxes.

Brown's measure changes the state's funding formula for education and doubles down on his "realignment" plan that transfers responsibility, and some money, for certain government functions from the state to local governments.

The millionaires' tax, sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers, changes the method of funding a host of government programs.

The tax initiative from civil rights attorney Molly Munger and the state PTA creates a whole new way of funding school districts, and establishes a new Head Start-style program at the state level.

So why has so little been said about the particulars of these measures?

Three reasons.

1. Taxes are a way more sexy subject than budget funding formulas.

2. The horse race is all for political reporters, who often don't have time to read and understand the details of what the measures do. And those who do this work often find that editors, and their audience, don't much care about the policy.

3. None of these measures, for all the attention they're getting, are really all that big a deal.

Yes, each creates new policies and new funding formulas, but these formulas are par for the course in a state budget that is already full of complicated formulas. All three measures, in a larger sense, are just more of the same.

And even on taxes, none of the revenues produce enough new money to make much of a difference -- well less than 10 percent of the overall state budget. Munger's initiative, for example, which would be the most generous of the three to education, doesn't even get the state back to the national average in per-pupil spending.

Why are these measures so relatively modest and their provisions so familiar?

In a word: polling.

California ballot initiatives are constructed less as legislation and more as political documents, designed to win public support off the bat, so they attract funders and get on the ballot. They are, in essence, political constructs that are designed to poll well. It's all very meta.

So in one sense, the focus on polling makes sense. And in another sense, it's madness.

Let us know what you think. Send us your thoughts via Twitter @PropZero or add your comment to our Facebook page. 

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