Budget Balancing Acts

LAT zooms in on California’s Props 1D and 1E

A Los Angeles Times article today discusses two propositions that will appear on the state’s May 19 special election ballot, and which, if passed, would help California’s deep deficit troubles. It does a good job explaining the brouhaha surrounding the propositions (which would divert money from early childhood development and mental health programs to help the state balance its budget), while explaining a bigger picture of voter trends.

The article engages in a certain amount of heartstring yanking. If the propositions pass, as reporter Eric Bailey puts it, they would “yank more than $2 billion from a pair of popular programs that help some of the state’s most vulnerable: young children and the mentally ill.” Ouch. No one wants to be involved in doing that.

To its credit, the article goes further and successfully explains how these types of programs—voted into place by the public in order to receive specific funding (“ballot-box budgeting”)—can also pose a more general problem for a state with long-running budget problems. Here’s Bailey:

Though they often complain that statehouse lawmakers spend like drunken sailors, the state’s voters have in recent decades repeatedly performed in much the same manner. Time and again they have approved propositions that critics say have combined to straitjacket the state’s budgetary process.

Bailey creates numerate context—also stating that the state’s annual debt to pay back money borrowed for infrastructure projects “has soared to 6 percent of the budget”; that in the last thirty years, voters have approved “two dozen ballot measures telling lawmakers how to spend money”; and that California’s bond rating on Wall street is “the worst among all 50 states”—all of which helps frame the propositions with voting trends and budgetary constraints.

But for one, I’d add that Bailey would have done well to not only focus on what the propositions mean (and why they have emotional currency), but also to take a deeper stab at how the money would be used if they were to pass. It also seems important to mention other, similar propositions that will appear on the special election ballot—those also intended to fill up holes in the state budget. There are four others, including one that would let the state borrow $5 billion against future lottery profits (check here for the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial endorsing all six). The governor and other supporters have been pitching all six as a bundle, and have stressed the importance of passing all of them. An article about Propositions 1D and 1E (the two that the LAT story discusses) should mention that as part of the bigger picture.

Or, at least pose the questions that the LAT’s Nick Goldberg asked in an interesting state budget Q&A that the paper recently conducted with Gov. Schwarzenegger and four other California officials. Schwarzenegger had stated: “In order to bring our economy back we have to bring our budget back to have enough money to pay for the programs I think they all have to be voted on ‘yes,’ and they all have to pass.” Goldberg responded by asking: “Explain what the process will be. What happens if one of these [propositions] goes down? The whole deal collapses? That piece of the deal collapses?” These are questions that may not yet have direct answers (Schwarzenegger certainly didn’t answer them directly), but it’s still important to pose them, to remind readers of the interwoven budgetary process, and to discourage a tunnel-vision focus on measures whose popular storylines afford them more attention.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.