Friday, October 15, 2010




No one can doubt the low opinion most Californians have about the politicians they send to Sacramento. Favorable ratings for legislators in most polls run barely over 30 percent.

So it’s no surprise that some of those same surveys now show Proposition 22 with an excellent chance of passage next month.

The ballot title pretty much sums up what this initiative would do: “Prohibits the state from taking funds used for transportation or local government projects and services.”

The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst reports that Proposition 22 would place “significant restraints on state authority over city, county, special district and redevelopment agency funds…higher and more stable local resources…reductions in state resources results in major decreases in state spending…”

In short, pass this measure and state legislators could no longer switch local redevelopment agency funds over to help fund public schools. Pass it and state government would not be able to some portions of local property taxes to pay for prisons and parks, pumping water and much more.

If this proposal had been law this month, when legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally agreed on a new budget, that budget would have been more than $1 billion smaller. Half that shortfall would have involved payments on past transportation and highway bonds, for which Proposition 22 would forbid using gasoline tax revenue.

Wait a minute: No using gas taxes to pay for highway improvements? But highway maintenance is what the gas tax has been about since the early years of the last century.

Here’s the simple reality: If voters pass this measure, they will tie state legislators’s hands in completely unprecedented ways. But don’t expect those lawmakers to sit still and accept it. Nope, chances are they will simply shove some functions the state now fulfills down to the local level.

If prison funds have to be cut, that won’t necessarily mean convicts go free. Rather, some types of criminals will be confined in county jails rather than state prisons. It’s also entirely possible some state parks could be turned over to counties.

“We need to push a lot of decisions down from the state level to the local governments,” says Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor. Well, pass this proposition, and that will happen even faster than Brown plans. Whether he wins election next month or not.

For sure, passing this proposition would put a serious crimp in the kind of gimmickry Schwarzenegger has often used to balance budgets. There would be no more “borrowing” from gasoline tax funds to bridge cash flow crises. There would be no more “stealing” from local governments.

But all this involves some serious decision-making by voters. Is it more important to let local officials, some of whom have lately been shown to pay themselves and their cronies absurdly high salaries, use property tax dollars for purchasing land they claim is blighted and then developing it? Or would it be better to let that money keep flowing to schools and other services, where the Legislature has often put it in recent years?

Is it better to build new offices and stores and apartments or to keep class sizes down?

Is it better to give primary responsibility for funding public safety, welfare and health services to city councils and county boards, or is it better to keep a lot of the decision-making at the state level?

These kinds of questions make the lineups of Proposition 22’s supporters and opponents pretty predictable. The League of California Cities (think mayors and city councils) and the California Transit Association are for it. They want more money in local hands.

The California Teachers Association, the California Nurses Association and the California Professional Firefighters, all public employee unions, are against. They want decisions to be made by state lawmakers over whom they wield considerable influence.

For sure, those legislators have often raided local government coffers to balance state budgets, which has sometimes hurt local road repairs and other services. For sure, legislators exploit every legal loophole they can find in order to take money and use it as they please.

But depriving them of some of that authority might force cuts in public schools – unless city councils decide to switch over some of the cash they’d save. Some cities already help fund schools, others don’t. Those differences would likely become more extreme under Proposition 22, with the “have” school districts outperforming “have-nots” even more than they do now.

That makes this a serious decision, one whose results will be felt for many years to come. Which is why it behooves voters to pay far more attention to this proposition than they have so far.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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