Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Crazy California Ballot

It's time to express a simple, easy opinion about the CA ballot: It's stupid!

Why do we insist on allowing initiatives? That process gets us the most awful legislation imaginable, written by anyone with a vested interest in something and enough money to setup an organization with a nice, bland name - something like the "Committee for Continuing California Progress", oh, wait, that would be the CCCP, and I doubt that would fly, but you get the idea - to drive it home.

Oh, I know the claim: "Our legislators aren't doing their job, so we have to do it for them." I say that's crap. If they haven't found a way to deal with it in Sacramento it's because the problem is difficult and the people are split about how to handle it. That's a time for discussion and - yes, I know you'll hate the word - compromise, not for some billionaire from out of state to come in and force the issue onto the ballot by hiring people to stand outside of grocery stores conning voters into signing things they haven't read and don't understand.

The initiative process is the dumbest way to make legislation, and it causes no end of problems, but the issues with the California ballot don't end there.

Why do we insist on enshrining every stinking thing into the state constitution? Why are the specifics of how to fund a high speed rail project in the constitution? Why are the sentences for various crimes in the constitution? What on earth is going on here? Printed out, the California constitution must be 950 pages long. No one can read a ballot measure and understand its impacts because the various bits are spread out all over a huge document that no one fully comprehends.

Wouldn't it make more sense for the constitution to contain a few guiding principles - things we think are core to what makes California the unique place it is - and put the rest of it into laws? Laws that our legislature could simply vote up or down and be done with? (Can you think of any examples where we do this? Hint: here's one place where the Federal goverment is way ahead of the curve.) If we want our legislators to do their jobs, we shouldn't be voting on every single thing they have to do every couple of years, as we have to if it's in the constitution. Instead we should be voting on what they did by putting new legislators in place if we don't like the outcomes.

A related point is that the average voter can't be an expert on everything on the ballot. This time around I need to know about farm animal treatment, high speed rail funding and usage patterns, and ten other subjects. Excuse me? How the hell should I know about these things? We hire our legislators to do this work for a reason: it's not simple. It takes time and effort and research. Our legislators, in turn, should consult with (or hire) experts in various fields to gather enough information to know how to vote intelligently. I don't have the time - not to mention the spare cranial capacity - to do all of that for every issue on the ballot, which again argues for keeping things out of the constitution and instead putting them into laws that our legislators can vote on and change as needed.

Another point about the California ballot is that we're addicted to bond measures. Back when the governator was put into office, there was all kinds of hubbub about how we had too much bond debt and we weren't going to get more credit as a state. Things were near panic. But the debt was refinanced in various ways and life went on. Well, now, here we are again with a boat load of bond measures on the 2008 ballot, and there were bunches in previous elections as well. When do we say enough is enough? Aren't we mortgaging the future of the state to pay for these things now? An occasional bond I can understand, but this state seems to feed on bonds in a way that has no basis in fiscal reality.

And speaking of fiscal reality, let's talk about a way in which we, the voters, have tied the hands of the legislature to keep them from doing their job: fiscal restrictions. So many initiatives have passed that require certain percentages of the state budget be devoted to specific things that there is no way the remainder and accomplish anything useful. Sure, schools are a good cause, but are they always the best place to spend money? Maybe not. Maybe we need to move money around and hire more fire fighters some year, but the budget is so tight we can't.

Any cause can be painted as right and noble. Many truly are. But the state budget is a balancing act, and the legislation that requires specific funding percentages for schools, roads, and shoes for the children of orphaned lumberjacks who don't wear flannel is just ludicrous. The legislature needs to be able to control the majority of the budget. I'd prefer to see them control it all, actually, but for the moment I'll take what I can get.

Here's a thought, people: we have to cooperate, and we can't spend more than we have. If you want to put more money into <your favorite cause> we have to either spend less on <someone else's favorite cause> or we have to take in more money from somewhere, probably taxes. It's not hard to see when spelled out that simply, but getting people to realize that and act based on those simple principles is tough.

In all seriousness I suggest you consider the following when you go to the polls in a few days: vote no on everything at the state level. Yes, you may think that some of the ideas in some of those ballot measures are good, but ask yourself: were they put there for the right reasons, and in balance with everything else going on? Do they cost more money than we have? Will lawyers earn millions as they go through the court system? Could we live without them just fine?

Seriously. Give it some thought.