Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The meaning of the special election: Marty Hittelman

The meaning of the special election
by Marty Hittelman

The May 19 Special Election has come and gone, but the results may not be easy to interpret. For one thing, each political persuasion (including mine) can find something in the results to validate their own beliefs. The anti-tax ideologues didn't even wait for the results of the May 19 special election to begin spinning. According to them, the defeat of Propositions 1A through 1E was due to the California electorate’s enduring anti-tax feelings.

There is plenty of evidence to dispute such a simplistic conclusion. The bulk of the "No" campaign came from public sector unions and their community allies determined to prevent further cuts to California's vital social services—the government programs that help make our society livable.

Indeed, traditional allies and adversaries were jumbled together on both sides, and a confused electorate is one that tends to vote “no.”
Polling shows that the hardcore anti-tax vote is pretty much constant, representing about 20% of the electorate. Clearly this was not sufficient to defeat the initiatives.

Another factor in assessing the election is that most voters did not bother to vote. While typical of a special election turnout, this phenomenon suggests voters did not believe the ballot measures represented a real solution to the problems of closing the state’s structural budget gap and funding essential public services.

We can reasonably surmise these proposals were defeated for a variety of reasons. But the clearest lesson should be that the people of California did not support a state budget process that occurred behind closed doors, involving only the governor and the legislative leadership, who dumped a half-baked mess of virtually incomprehensible ideas on the voters and said, here, you solve it. Proposition 1A, in particular, was so convoluted that even its advocates couldn't explain it clearly.

If an open, democratic budget process had occurred, 1A and the other propositions never would have made it to the ballot, because their tortuous logic and flaws would have been made all too apparent.

Now the propositions have been defeated and the ever-shrinking Republican legislative minority still possesses just above one third of the votes, leaving them in the same position that forced the special election: the driver’s seat. California’s archaic (from 1934) and nearly unique (just two other states) constitutional requirement for a two-thirds legislative vote for passing the state budget means the legislative Republicans are a classic example of “tyranny of the minority.”

Throughout the campaign the governor maintained, with typical disregard for facts, that these measures would “fix the state budget.” They were never going to. The Democratic Legislative leaders had a more plausible, but equally cynical argument: you had to vote for this package, because there was “no alternative,” due to Republican ideological unity and intransigence.

In the coming days we will see if the Republicans can take their responsibility to govern seriously, or stay stuck in the same reverse gear that brought them massive defeat in the last election and a shrinking share of California’s electorate. If they can’t change, Assembly and Senate Democrats should take a small portion of their political war chests and go out to the Legislative districts that have changing demographics. Enough of these districts now exist that a well-organized voter registration and election campaign leading to the November 2010 election could force the hard line anti-taxers below the magic one-third threshold.

Another alternative: go directly to the ballot to ask the people of California to understand what nearly every other state's citizens do: that our Legislature should practice democracy by majority rule.

The past few decades have seen an unfortunate redistribution of this country's wealth upward. The richest one percent own more than one third of our combined wealth. Recent polls show that large majorities support increasing taxes on the rich and closing corporate tax loopholes to keep California livable. This should give courage to our political leaders. But expediency is not why the governor and Legislature should focus on progressive taxes to solve the budget problem; rather, they should do it because it is their job to clearly explain the links between taxes and the important services they fund, and because it is the right thing to do.
Hittleman is the President of the California Federation of Teachers. Not to be confused with the CTA.
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