Calif.’s omen for the nation

Thirty years ago, California voters launched a taxpayer revolt that swept the nation and, some say, presaged the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Prop 13 slashed property taxes and imposed a constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote for virtually all tax increases. The entire political, business, education and labor establishment of the state opposed the measure — outspending proponents by a wide margin. In June of 1978, Prop 13 passed with 65 percent of the vote, making folk heroes of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, the two political gadflies who drafted and promoted the initiative.

On Tuesday of this week it was déjà vu all over again in the Golden State. Earlier this year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) negotiated a deal with Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the Legislature to put a package of six measures on the ballot to bring “sanity” and “stability” to the budget process in California. The measures would reform the budget process by building up a rainy-day fund, imposing spending caps, borrowing against lottery proceeds and extending tax increases on higher-income residents for a few years. The package was billed as a short-term fix for a looming $21 billion deficit and a long-term solution to California’s chronic boom-and-bust budget cycle. Just to sweeten the deal, a sixth measure banned any salary increases for legislators and state officers so long as California ran a deficit.

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There was something for everyone in the package, and a very impressive coalition of groups signed on to support it. Business, labor, education, police, firefighters, municipal governments and most elected officials in the state endorsed the package, though some did so with reservations. The only opposition was from an uncomfortable coalition of anti-tax groups and public employee unions who didn’t like the job cuts threatened by spending caps. California’s establishment put its money where its mouth was, raising millions of dollars as the governor twisted every arm he could reach — eventually outspending opponents 5 to 1.

Sounds like a slam-dunk, right? It was — but not the one the state’s leaders hoped for. Five of the measures lost in the 65-35 range. The punitive limit on salary increases got a 74 percent yes vote. (Might be a message there for some incumbent officeholders.)

Though the turnout was very light in this special election, those who did vote were clearly mad as hell at Sacramento. A private poll last week had the right track/wrong track rating of the state at 19 percent positive — 71 percent negative. The Field Poll, a California institution, found the public giving the Legislature a 14 percent approval rating, with 74 percent of voters turning thumbs down, the poorest rating in a quarter-century of Field Polls. The governor fared a little better with a 33 percent approval/55 percent disapproval score.

Angry voters told researchers they didn’t trust “the people who got us into this mess to get us out.” They believed there was plenty of waste, fraud and abuse in the budget to close the $21 billion hole. They favored cuts in state employees, parks and recreational facilities and prisons. “Don’t let the prisoners out, just stop feeding them steak,” opined one focus group respondent. Taxes on pornography and legalized marijuana should do the rest of the job, many thought.

When pushed by pollsters with harsh facts such as another 40,000 teachers cut, police and fire departments slashed and popular programs scaled back, voters remained firm in their resolve to send a message. “Cutting teachers, closing schools and more layoffs for police and firefighters would be a disaster, but I’m still voting no … why? Because I don’t want to bail out Sacramento and I want to punish the politicians,” said one voter in Los Angeles.

There is much in this California story to give pause to political leaders everywhere. California is “Big Blue” — arguably the safest Democratic territory in the country. But a red heart beats in rural counties and sprawling suburbs. While giving Barack Obama a landslide victory, the state also passed Prop 8, outlawing gay marriage. It sends Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) to Washington. It is a melting pot — a bellwether; the place seismic political shifts often begin.

There is a cautionary message for President Obama’s sweeping reforms, which people support but have not yet been asked to pay for. There should be concern in statehouses all over America as governors struggle with their budgets. The lack of trust in government that has taken root on the left coast could well spread in the coming year to reshape America’s political landscape. The message from California voters should not be ignored.



Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com