The Corner

California’s Awful Prop. 31: Is This Your Future?

Wake up California. You are perilously close to ratifying Proposition 31, a sweepingly redistributionist and profoundly undemocratic transformation of your way of life, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. Suburbanites of California, you are the special targets of Prop. 31. Act now, or be turned into second-class citizens in your own state.

Wake up America. Look toward the regionalist revolution on California’s horizon. In an era of looming municipal bankruptcies, this could be your fate: robbing the suburbs to pay for the cities. The regionalist transformation now being quietly pressed on California is exactly the sort of change President Obama has in mind for America should he win a second term. In California and America both, the 2012 election could open the door for a regionalist movement in hot pursuit of a redistributionist remaking of American life.

California’s Proposition 31 is the project of a collection of “good government” groups, in particular, California Forward. California Forward says its goal is “fundamental change.” They’re right about that. The change they have in mind, unfortunately, is creating a collection of de facto regional super-governments designed to undercut the political and economic independence of California’s suburbs. The goal is to redistribute suburban tax money to California’s failing cities. Instead of taking on the mismanagement that is breaking California’s cities, Prop. 31 lets failing cities bail themselves out by raiding the pocketbooks of California’s suburbanites. In the process, Prop. 31 will kill off the system of local government at the root of American liberty.

How does Prop. 31 work? It allows local governments to join together to form “Strategic Action Plans.” Supposedly, this pooling of local municipal services into a kind of de facto collective regional super-government would be voluntary. In fact, Prop. 31 deploys powerful incentives to effectively force the creation of these regional super-governments. To begin with, municipalities that join regional collectives–and only those municipalities–can effectively waive onerous state laws and regulations by creating their own more lax versions of those rules. Next, Prop. 31 channels a portion of state sales tax revenue to municipalities that join regional governing collectives–and only those municipalities. Finally, Prop. 31 authorizes local governments participating in the regional collectives to pool their property-tax receipts.

#more#The result will be the effective redistribution of suburban tax money to the cities, and second-class citizenship for Californians who live in municipalities that refuse to pool their tax money by joining regional collectives.

If you understand the goals and tactics of the regionalist movement that created Prop. 31, it’s easy enough to see what California Forward hopes to achieve. In the beginning, California’s cities will join together with a few only-moderately-well-off nearby suburbs to form a de facto regional government with pooled tax receipts. Although some of the suburbs that join up will experience a net tax loss, this will be offset by the additional sales tax revenue preferentially funneled to regional governing consortia by the state. Relief from onerous state regulations will be another compensatory advantage of tax-sharing.

Meanwhile, the bulk of California’s more prosperous suburbs will decline to pool their tax money with the cities, and so will retain their independence by standing outside of the collectives. Yet that won’t be the end of it. For one thing, just by staying out of the regional governing collectives, the preferential funneling of state sales tax revenue to the regional consortia will effectively redistribute money from the suburbs to the cities.

Also, the ability of the regional governing collectives to effectively waive onerous state laws and regulations will disadvantage the suburbs. A legislator from a city in one of the regional consortia could vote for unpopular regulatory bills, knowing that his own constituents could exempt themselves from the harshest effects of those laws. Increasingly, cities will rule the suburbs, imposing laws and penalties from which they themselves would be exempt.

The only way out for the suburbs would be to join the nearest tax-pooling regional governing consortium, effectively redistributing a huge share of their tax money to the cities. Any way you look at it, the suburbs lose. Under Prop. 31, some combination of redistribution and second-class citizenship will be their fate.

Proposition 31 is an offense against America’s most fundamental concepts of liberty and self-government. Yet the outrages don’t end there. The revolutionary regionalism that is the boldest and most significant change contained in Prop. 31 has played almost no role in the public debate over this ballot initiative. Instead, when Prop. 31 is debated, the focus has largely been on its far less consequential “good government” provision mandating that bills in the California legislature be published at least three days prior to passage.

The irony here is that a proposition supposedly designed to further government transparency now threatens to impose a regionalist revolution on California’s citizens with barely any debate. Prop. 31 proponents are vastly outspending opponents. Their campaign, moreover, greatly underplays the regionalist revolution hidden in the text. Nor has the press come close to grasping what the regionalist provisions of Prop. 31 would actually do. Never has so great a governmental change come so close to success, with so little debate.

The state of California owes a debt of gratitude to Wayne Lusvardi. So far as I know, Lusvardi is the first analyst to uncover and publicize the regionalist implications of Proposition 31. Lusvardi also persuasively shows that the public debate over Prop. 31 has entirely missed the point.

If you want to understand the political and policy roots of Proposition 31, the best place to turn is the California Speakers Commission on Regionalism. (You can read a condensed version of the Commission’s 2002 repor t here.) This report was prepared for then-Speaker of the California Assembly, Robert Hertzberg. Hertzberg now serves as co-chair of California Forward, the key sponsor of Proposition 31.

The report of the California Speakers Commission on Regionalism is a pure product of the regionalist movement, the goals of which I describe in my book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. Obama, too, is a product of the regionalist movement, and the regionalist provisions of Prop. 31 are prototypes of policies the president hopes to press on the country should he secure re-election. Sad to say, Obama is being every bit as open about all this as the proponents of Prop. 31 have been about their ballot initiative’s real goals, which is to say, not very open at all.

I’ll have more to say about Proposition 31 in the coming days.


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