The Corner

California’s Prop. 31: The Revolution Will Not Be Publicized

We are two months away from fundamentally transforming the State of California, and barely anyone knows it. With a five to six point lead in the latest poll, Proposition 31 has a solid shot at passage. The measure is meant to bail out California’s failing cities by creating regional super-governments empowered to raid and redistribute suburban tax money. It’s the end of the system of local self-government that has served as the bedrock of American democracy since the time of the Founders — in the nation’s largest state, no less. Yet virtually no one is paying attention.

Proposition 31 allows collections of local governments to pool their tax receipts. While this “tax sharing” is supposedly voluntary, the initiative sets up rewards and punishments that effectively force California’s local governments to submit to redistribution, or accept second-class status instead. Once California’s municipalities have been swallowed up by de facto regional super-governments, citizens will come under the thumb of officials unelected by the public they control. We’re looking at redistribution without representation, an Americanized version of the undemocratic financial and political arrangements currently killing the European Union.

Yet few of the voters who favor or oppose Proposition 31 understand any of this. While the measure remakes California in the image of the controversial “regional equity movement,” it’s being sold and debated on entirely different grounds. Prop. 31 is a kind of mini-Obamacare, an eye-glazingly long, complex, and multi-faceted initiative that voters may actually pass before finding out what’s inside.

This Contra Costa Times editorial typifies the debate to date. “Proposition 31 not perfect, but deserves yes vote,” says the headline. Although the regionalist provisions are easily the largest and most revolutionary sections of the initiative, the Contra Costa Times has virtually nothing to say about them. The text of Prop. 31 is “a bit lengthy and unnecessarily dense,” we’re told, yet the editorialists do nothing to clarify for their readers what those dense passages actually mean. They obviously have no idea. The most that the Contra Costa Times’s editorialists have to say about the regionalist provisions is that Prop. 31 “increases local government flexibility.”

That is ridiculous. In fact, Prop. 31 grants de facto regional super-governments the power to swallow up and control local municipalities, which will lose flexibility and be greatly disadvantaged unless they knuckle under to a whole new layer of government newly interposed between those localities and the state.

#more#The Contra Costa Times’s editorialists devote the lion’s share of their attention to the “good government” budgeting provisions of Proposition 31, for example the requirement that bills be published three days prior to passage. Although this is a non-trivial issue in a state where bills are often quietly gutted and amended at the last minute, the three-day publicity provision pales in significance beside the regionalist revolution hidden in the initiative’s text.

The campaign to quietly foist a redistributive regionalist revolution on the people of California is a decidedly scary example of never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste. It’s clear from the Contra Costa Times editorial that frustration with California’s near-bankrupt and dysfunctional government is so great that the paper is willing to accept almost any purported fix, sight unseen. The regionalist backers of Prop. 31 understand that sentiment and have moved to exploit it.

The Los Angeles Times hasn’t yet taken a position on Proposition 31, and it’s clear that editorialist Robert Greene is downright puzzled by the text. He invites readers to help out with interpretations and opinions. Good idea. Unfortunately, the only thing that’s clear about Prop. 31 is that its advocates don’t want you to understand what it says. As Wayne Lusvardi, the most informed opponent of the measure explains, Prop. 31′s advocates consistently overlook or downplay the measure’s tax-base sharing provisions when publicly explaining and defending its text.

After Prop. 31′s procedural provisions (like the three-day publicity period for bills), the most comprehensible sections of Prop. 31 deal with the governor’s powers. The measure grants the governor the ability to unilaterally slash the budget in case of a fiscal emergency in which he and the legislature fail to reach agreement.

This provision has split both left and right. Public-employee unions oppose the governor’s powers because they fear he’ll slash their benefits. Some conservatives have noticed this opposition and support the bill precisely because public-employee unions oppose it. Yet savvy leftists who understand the regionalist revolution buried in the text favor Prop. 31, while conservatives just now waking up to the anti-democratic redistributionism driving left-wing proponents are turning against the measure.

The most generous interpretation of Prop. 31 is that it’s a kind of grand bargain. Fiscal conservatives confer unchecked budget-slashing powers on the governor, while granting the left their redistributive regionalist revolution in return. “Good government” provisions front for the measure in debate, diverting the public’s attention from the profoundly controversial changes buried in the text.

This strikes me as less of a grand bargain than a deal with the devil. Right and left alike are selling out democracy to achieve some long-sought goals.

Granting California’s governor unilateral powers is no way to solve this crisis. We could be looking at near-constant declarations of fiscal emergency, pushing governors toward quasi-autocratic rule. That will more likely create a backfire in the form of frequent recall elections than the sort of buy-in needed to resolve the state’s financial crisis. It’s never a good idea to delegate unchecked power to any one man.

Proposition 31′s assault on democracy is no isolated incident. The fiscal emergency spreading across the West is everywhere tempting us to set democracy aside. With publics deadlocked and economies in crisis, handing undemocratic powers to bureaucrats, commissions, or political leaders feels like the quick solution. Eurocrats sap money and sovereignty from democratic electorates, Obamacare sets up a de facto rationing board that undercuts the Constitution’s balance of powers, and now California’s Proposition 31 is two months away from swallowing up America’s tradition of local government in a coercive redistributionist scheme.

This is not the way to solve our financial problems. Nor is it the way to amend California’s constitution — voting on massive changes in the absence of informed debate. Preserve democracy and stop Prop. 31.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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