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On California's Dead Propositions and Budget Blues

Last week, The Economist ran a piece about California's boondoggle of a budget crisis, suggesting that nothing short of a new state constitution could turn things around. In the absence of that total overhaul, and as a way to at least partially reduce the devastation of the budget deficit, the state's legislature drafted six ballot measures; they were infuriatingly difficult to parse but could have reduced the deficit from about $21 billion to about $15 billion this year. Yesterday, however, voters across the state said no thanks to all but one of those propositions. So, as a means of combing through this madness, we called on Gabriel Botnick, president of the voter awareness group Young Progressive Majority, to figure out what yesterday's special election results mean.GOOD: Gabriel, the overwhelming sentiment around here was that these ballot measures were really confusing. When I went to my polling place yesterday, even after reading up on the six propositions, I didn't feel like I knew what my votes were going to do.GABRIEL BOTNICK: That's actually a big problem. Debra Bowen, the secretary of state, has [tried to] address it before-where people use double negatives in the wordings of ballot measures-and it's being addressed on the state level. But, in the meantime, here I am the president of this organization that focuses on political works in California and Los Angeles, and I was looking at the ballot and completely confused by the some of the wordingsG: I know. There's always this threat, with propositions, that something in there is going to engender results the voters could never see coming-at least that's my fear when I vote on them. GB: The way that I'm starting to see it is that these legislators are shirking their responsibility. Instead of them making the tough calls, they're passing the really big decisions onto an ill-informed electorate. But it was very clear that the electorate was not going to make these budget decisions on their own.G: Right, and the only one that passed was 1F, which prevented legislators from receiving pay raises when there's a budget deficit. It seemed like, with that one, it passed because people could understand what they were voting for. GB: Yeah, there were two things here. One, they could understand what they were voting for. And two, they were thumbing their noses at these guys who have been jerking them around financially.G: But should these measures have passed? Would the state be better off if they had? GB: From what I see, the consensus is that if these ballot measures had passed, we would be in less dire straights than we currently are. But, had they passed, we would be raiding these funds that were financially stable on their own because of poor management of other funds. We would not be addressing the major problem, which is really the tax and financial structure of California's government.G: What needs to change?GB: The proposition system is a flawed system to begin with. It was originally implemented when California was very white, Christian, and homogeneous. People were very involved in public elections and it was a direct democracy. But today, we have huge diversity, and only 14 percent of the electorate turned out yesterday. That's nowhere near a direct democracy, so the idea of people voting for these things is foolish. Our legislation should be held up to a higher standard.G: How would the state do that? And how would it fix the finance structure? GB: It would be terribly unpopular, but someone needs to step up and change Prop 13 [which prevents property taxes from increasing with land value] and get rid of the two thirds majority required to approve a budget (we're one of only three states to require that). Governor Schwarzenegger was trying to address the immediate concerns, but he really wasn't thinking about the big pictures. And that's how a lot of Californians were feeling when they voted yesterday: It's not just about these quick fixes, but that we really have to change the budget system and the way that we're raising our taxes.

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