03 October 2012

Prop 31: Local control beats state control.

“So ‘fiscal liberal’ means you’re a tax-and-spend liberal,” one of my friends commented after the last post. Um… okay. I suppose I do believe in taxing and spending. What, are you gonna raise taxes, then sit on the money? Or borrow and spend, cut taxes yet rack up massive, generation- and economy-crippling deficits, then blame the ruined economy and deficits on the opposition party? Wait, that’s got potential… Aw, but Republicans are already doing it. Bummer.

Libertarians would have you cut taxes, over and over again, as often as possible, and argue we can afford it because government wastes money. The reality is government always wastes money. So do businesses. So do households. I throw out old food. I’m not gonna cut the food budget simply because I didn’t eat all the beans I’ve cooked, or drink all the coffee I’ve made. But to use libertarian thinking, not only should I trim the food budget: I should eliminate it altogether and just graze on the lawn.

I prefer local government. Every program, as much as possible, should be moved out of Washington and Sacramento, and put in the hands of locals. I believed it back when I was a Republican, and most of my fellow Republicans totally agreed. Here’s the catch: To do so will often be more expensive than consolidating the program in Washington and Sacramento. The reason things move out of local control is because it’s cheaper and “more efficient” to do everybody’s thing at once. Problem is, once it’s no longer a local program, the locals who care stop paying attention, and the bureaucrats who don’t care take over. The solution? Spend the extra money, and move it back home.

But here’s where I’d butt heads with the fiscal conservatives. Their solution? Have it neither be here nor there. Dismantle it altogether. Take the savings and turn it into a tax cut. And once people get their money back, they’ll think, “Why, now that I have all this spare money, I’ll give it away! I’ll fund a private charity that replaces that now-dismantled government service. Because having more money makes me want to be good.”

Here on Earth, though, it doesn’t work like that. You wanna fix a business? You gotta sink money into it. You wanna fix the government? Sometimes you gotta sink money into it too. Don’t wanna? Don’t blame you. But it’s not gonna fix itself, and collapsing it isn’t gonna create a great libertarian utopia powered by John Galt’s generator. It’s gonna create a power vacuum that’ll be filled by the ruthless, and historically, the first people the ruthless went after were the people with money. Stop sowing the seeds of your own downfall, and fix what’s broken.

Well, this rant was somewhat triggered by the proposition du jour, Prop 31. Here goes nothing.

Proposition 31. State budget. State and local government. Initiative Constitutional Amendment and Statute.

What I’d call it. Let’s take some power from the state government, and put it back in the hands of local governments.

The problem. The state is broke. The state took back monies from the counties and cities, so now they’re broke, and aren’t happy about that. The legislature can’t get its act together and pass budgets on time, so that doesn’t help anybody, much less the counties and cities that want their money.

California Forward, the state-reform think tank that successfully pushed for the state’s new redistricting system and open-primary voting, had already been working on how to fix the state budget process. This proposition is their baby.

The “solution.” This is a huge power shift from the state to the locals—provided the locals invent some solutions.

First of all, local governments will now have the ability to create new plans for how they provide local services. This proposition doesn’t outline any such plans ’cause the authors are figuring the locals will invent those plans.

Subject, of course, to the general consensus of the other local governments. The county supervisors must approve. The bigger school boards must approve. The legislature has to review it. If you can’t get approval, nothing changes. So let’s say the Orange County supervisors decide to create a miniature fascist state led by the pastor of the biggest megachurch. Obviously it’s not gonna fly. Disney might have a shot, though.

Both the state and local governments have to invent a review system that reviews every single government program and service at least once every five years. Yeah, it’ll cost some money to create that system.

Once the plans are approved, the locals can get state funding for the plans: A big chunk of the local property taxes, and a cut of the state sales taxes.

If state law might interfere with these plans, the locals can suggest alternative rules—submitted to the legislature for review—for their program. Those exemptions expire after four years, unless renewed.

Finally, instead of a yearly budget mess, it’s gonna be a biennial budget mess: Every two years the legislature will pass a budget, and every July it has to review the programs in the budget to make sure they’re doing their thing. During this review time, they can’t pass any other laws except two-thirds supermajority laws—namely, emergencies and overriding the governor’s veto.

The state can’t cut taxes without explaining how existing programs will be paid for. Nor can it expand programs without the existing money to pay for them.

If it doesn’t pass: Nothing changes.

Argument pro. There are good ideas out there to fix government, but politicians aren’t paying attention to them. This’ll get their attention. It increases public input and transparency; it stops new government spending; it increases local control and flexibility; it demands results, reviews and better budgets; and there’s that two-year state budget that’ll keep the state from passing short-term solutions.

Rebuttal. No it won’t. It’ll cost more, create more bureaucrats, and let local governments replace safety laws with more “convenient,” but more dangerous, rules. It makes it impossible to cut taxes. It’s so flawed, some California Forward members resigned over it.

Argument con. It’s confusing, poorly written, and will result in a whole bunch of lawsuits. It’ll take $200 million from education—think of the children!—and give it to experimental programs. It threatens public health and safety. Too expensive. Bad reform.

Rebuttal. It’s not poorly written; read it for yourself. It’ll work. We need change. Vote for it.

My view. I think I already kinda gave it, didn’t I? The state needs reform. Reform’s gonna cost money. Local oversight is better than state oversight. And so forth.

I am a little concerned about this idea to let the cities and counties offer alternatives to the state laws, when the laws get in their way. Some of those laws were voted in with our propositions. Violate those laws—even with the permission of the legislature—and you’re gonna get sued. I’m not sure that’s smart. Hopefully the local governments’ attorneys will advise them away from such behavior, although every once in a while you get some maverick county supervisor who believes he or she knows best. In any case, I suspect the legislature won’t let the locals bend the rules that far. (Well, maybe for payola, which is a separate issue.)

But on the whole, I see a lot of the reforms I want. Is it risky? Of course it is. Still, it’s worth a shot. I’m voting yes.