It’s Up to You – Frances Talbott-White

How easy should it be to negotiate a state budget? Props: 25 and 26

I have this lovely fantasy that today, the Sunday before our Gubernatorial Election, folks are having a leisurely read of the ballot pamphlet and making their final decisions on the statewide propositions. I keep tweaking the way I look at the ballot measures, and will continue to share my thoughts with you as we get down to the wire.

Proposition 25 is the measure that would permit our Legislature to pass a budget bill with a simple majority of both houses AND permanently forfeit any salary and expenses that would accrue to them during the days (or weeks, or months) between June 15 and when the annual budget bill is passed. Why June 15? Because that’s the due date specified in our constitution for a budget that goes into effect on July 1.

When evaluating any ballot measure, it’s always good to look at the way things stand now, and what would be changed by the new law. Currently, the Legislature must have a 2/3 majority vote of both houses to pass a budget, and their salaries are withheld (not forfeited, just withheld) during the time between June 15 and passage of a budget. It’s a sort of savings plan.

In the case of Prop 25, though, I think it may be even more important to look at what we’re NOT being asked to change. There still wouldn’t be any limit on the length of time that budget negotiations can go on, and, under Prop 25, a 2/3 vote of both houses would still be required to approve taxes. Prop 25 might make it easier to approve spending, but without making it easier to raise the money that’s allocated to be spent.

Prop 25 is not the only measure on our November 2 ballot that would restrict the ways to raise money for support of state and local expenses. Prop 26, if passed, would include fees as well as taxes in the requirement for a 2/3 vote. It also applies to the way fees are approved at the local level.

The difference between taxes and fees is important here. Taxes (mainly income taxes and property taxes) go into the General Fund, which may be allocated to almost any expense item in the budget. Fees, which may be punitive in nature, are, theoretically at least, spent within the category where they are collected: vehicle license fees for transportation funding, state park fees for park maintenance, greenhouse gas emission fees for environmental clean-up, etc.* If money from fees is harder to raise, expenses in these defined areas may have to be budgeted out of our beleaguered General Fund, which is already hard to raise.

How will California’s budgets be negotiated in 2011 and beyond? Will the figurative carrots and sticks employed in Props 26 and 26 make a difference?

It’s up to you!

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* Yes, I’m alluding to Props 21 and 23 here.

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