The March primary election is a month away. While we are already being bombarded with television advertising for the Democratic presidential race, there hasn’t been much discussion of ballot measures.
That’s because in 2011, Democrats in the Legislature enacted a law moving all statewide ballot initiatives to the November ballot, save those placed on the ballot by the Legislature. It was yet another effort to politicize the elections process.
On Super Tuesday, voters will only decide one statewide ballot measure, Proposition 13 (no, not that one!), a measure placed on the ballot by the Legislature asking voters to authorize a $15 billion school facilities bond.
The real action on ballot measures this March is at the local level. Take the City of Sacramento’s Measure G, for example.
If passed by city voters, the measure would dedicate 2.5 percent of unrestricted city revenue for 12 years starting in July 2021 to a new “Sacramento Children’s Fund,” which the city attorney’s office says in its impartial analysis could be spent on “qualifying youth and child services.” The Sacramento Bee says this will amount to up to $12.5 million per year.
Surprisingly, Mayor Darrell Steinberg – who presided over an increase in state General Fund spending from $84.5 billion in the 2009-10 fiscal year to $107.9 billion in 2014-15 fiscal year – is channeling his inner fiscal conservative in trying to stop Measure G.
He is proposing an alternative for the November ballot that would repeal Measure G if it passes and, according to the Bee, “require the city spend 20 percent of its year over year revenue growth on youth.”
Steinberg argues that Measure G would conflict with other city budget priorities – including past promises made to voters, saying “it’s in direct conflict because there is just not enough headroom to do both.”
Yet both approaches would continue the troubling trend of ballot box budgeting. When elected officials of both parties fail to make budget choices that reflect the priorities of taxpayers, citizens groups routinely use the initiative process to enshrine their preferred spending into law. The most famous is the landmark 1988 California ballot measure Proposition 98, which locks into the state budget spending for education of at least 40 percent of the General Fund annually.
While the spending priorities pushed by these various groups may be good, ballot box budgeting can cut both ways. For starters, it can lock their preferred level of spending in as a ceiling, rather than a floor of what should be spent. This has largely been the case over the years with statewide education spending under Prop. 98.
Ballot box budgeting also makes it much harder to adjust spending priorities during times of crisis, whether an economic crisis strapping local funds or a true emergency like a natural disaster.
The more spending locked in at the ballot box, the less flexibility that local decisionmakers have to respond. Budgets must stay withing the lines established by voters.
The city of Sacramento has significant problems, including a homeless crisis that has exploded on Steinberg’s watch. And yes, funding for youth programs has suffered in recent years. But local decisionmakers should have the freedom to budget accordingly for all of these and other competing priorities such as police and fire services. Ballot box budgeting complicates their ability to properly fund these core priorities by effectively tying one hand behind their backs.
Ultimately, we elect mayors and council members to enact city budgets. If voters don’t like how a city is spending their tax dollars, they have an even more powerful remedy than ballot box budgeting – they can vote the politicians out.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.