FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2009, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
"WHY IT'S VITAL TO VOTE IN THIS SPECIAL ELECTION"
You might not like the idea of the sales tax, vehicle and income tax increases that would be extended through four years if Proposition 1A passes today (editors: if using this column prior to May 19, sub the word Tuesday or May 19 for "today" here, as appropriate).
You might be sorely afraid of the cutbacks that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators warn they will have to impose if the budget-related propositions on this ballot do not pass. For that matter, the latest estimate of state revenues indicates more cuts will come this summer even if all the measures do pass.
For sure, if most of the proposition package goes down, draconian slashes will be almost sure to follow. The only way to avoid them would be by imposing more new taxes or fees, and if Proposition 1A loses, that would send a pretty strong message from voters who don't want any of that and would be sure to nix any further tax propositions submitted to them in some future special election. Plus, the few Republicans who voted for this package against their party's wishes have made it known those votes were it, basta, no more, no mas; any further budget problems would have to be solved with reduced spending.
What programs might be lopped if most of what's on this ballot loses? Expect some state parks to close, at least temporarily. Expect a further suspension of the program allowing elderly homeowners to postpone paying property taxes until their places are sold. Expect Medi-Cal cuts, even to the extent of denying vaccinations to poor children. Expect longer waits for court cases to be heard as funding for the legal system will drop. Expect fewer firefighters to respond to wildfires this summer and fall, with additional billions of dollars in property damages the consequence. Expect shorter hours at Department of Motor Vehicles offices.
And that's just for starters. Sure, there's waste in government. This column last winter documented at least $200 million in pure waste by the state prison system - and the people running the prisons (who saw those columns and did not deny anything reported there) still have made no changes.
But finding $15 billion worth of waste is a whole other question.
This all explains why voters should not be treating the special election like they do most off-year votes. So much is at stake here for so many Californians that if voters stay away from the polls this time, plenty of those who don't vote will suffer unpleasant consequences.
But special elections, like almost all votes in odd-numbered years (the 2003 recall election was a rare exception), don't draw well in California. There are no big names on the ballot as in presidential elections like last year's or in contests for governor or the U.S. Senate like those to come in 2010.
Turnouts are so low that small but active minorities often make key decisions for all Californians. That happened in 2005, when Schwarzenegger ran a series of propositions to severely limit state spending and give him more power to make budget cuts on his own. Less than one-fourth of all Californians, fewer than half of those eligible to vote, helped defeat those measures.
People who thought the state wasteful and wanted to limit spending but did not vote had no one to blame but themselves when they didn't like what followed.
If the turnout is similarly low this time, it will once again be an active minority making decisions for everyone, but this time the effects will be more direct.
So if you don't vote and you don't want new taxes, you might just find yourself paying them as a consequence of your own failure to turn out and that of others who also did not vote when they could have.
On the other side, people who get less welfare money, fewer health benefits or drive up to a state park gate only to find it closed might also be thinking back and regretting that they didn't come out.
The tendency then will be to blame the politicians. But the real blame would lie with those who didn't vote.
For this is one election where the stakes are very clear: It's either a couple more years of paying the recently hiked taxes in effect now or a plethora of budget cuts sure to hit at least one program dear to the heart of every Californian. Which means there's soul-searching to be done before heading to the polls or sending off an absentee ballot: If you don't want cuts in programs you consider important, you have to vote for at least most of these measures. If paying less taxes means more to you than any government program, you must vote no.
But the one thing voters on all sides can't afford to do is sit home. Anyone who does that leaves his or her fate in the hands of others - never a good idea.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net