California Propositions: Prop. 31

Written by

KCRW is taking a up-close look at one of the statewide initiatives on the November ballot.  Today, we tackle Prop 31, which deals with how that budget is drawn up—and more.

Proposition 31 is not one of those ballot measures that lends itself to short, catchy phrases.  But if you had to boil it down to fit inside a fortune cookie—or perhaps on a billboard–one possible description might be: making state government work better. But what does that mean?  KCRW’s reports:

Making government work better means  including the creation of a two-year state budget cycle; setting up benchmarks and goals for new state programs so that it’s easier to tell if they’re effective or not; requiring state lawmakers to explain how they’ll pay for new programs or tax cuts that cost $25 million or more; and giving the Governor the authority to cut the budget in financial emergencies if the legislature fails to act. “These are things that work in other states. They just seem like a big leap in California because we’ve gone so far the other way, ” said Tom McKernan, co-chair of a bipartisan group called California Forward that put Prop 31 on the ballot. He says their primary goal has been to figure out how to improve state governance.

Over the past few years, they’ve held dozens of public meetings and focus groups to get input—both from experts and from the public. And McKernan says the more they heard, the bigger an issue the state budget seemed to be. Take Prop 31’s proposal of setting up benchmarks and goals for new state programs—something the pros call performance-based budgeting. McKernan says it’s an approach that’s already used by many businesses and non-profits, and he says the state could learn a lot from it. “When we have very tight budgets, spending decisions should be focused on setting priorities and also making changes to improve performance, McKernan said.”

By glenngould via Flickr

And then there’s the part of Prop 31 that would require state lawmakers to budget out two years, instead of one. McKernan said the budget would probably have to be revised over that two year period, in situations when revenues drop sharply or costs go up unexpectedly for things like firefighting.  But he says that still wouldn’t take as long as drawing up a brand new budget every year. McKernan says ultimately the goal is that “the legislature can spend a lot more of their time on their missions, which is the quality of life for Californians in California, instead of every day it’s 24-7 budget and how do we pay for this.”

But not everyone is buying in.

“I am much more convinced that the Big Bank is needed–that incremental reform doesn’t really get to the heart of why California’s government doesn’t work very well,” said Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters.  For starters, he said requiring lawmakers to draw up a two year budget isn’t practical. “They can’t even do a one year budget, much less a two year budget,” Walters said. “You cannot predict California’s revenues with any degree of certainty because the revenue structure we have is so bass ackwards, it produces these huge spikes one year and huge drops the next year, which is why they’re in budget trouble in the first place.”

And Walters said even if Prop 31 passes, lawmakers would find ways to work around it and adopt a two year budget that would fall apart a few months later. He said the bigger issue is that Prop 31 doesn’t go far enough in dealing with the dysfunction in state government in Sacramento. “What we really need is kind of a clean sheet of paper to start designing a structure of government that makes sense for what California is in the 21st century—this very large, very complex, very diverse state–rather than keep trying to put patches on the inner tube that’s springing leaks everywhere.  We need to go back and get a new inner tube.”

Walters said we need to look at the relationship between cities, counties, and the state– and who’s responsible for what.  He said we need to change the way taxes are levied and budgets produced.  And he says we need to hold a state constitutional convention to perhaps change the very structure of the legislature and how voters are represented.

Prop 31 supporters for their part say they realize the changes they’re proposing won’t fix every problem in Sacramento.  But they say if Californians can’t agree on these kinds of incremental changes, what hope is there of doing something big—like holding a state constitutional convention and changing the fundamental structure of state government?